Writing Student Learning Outcomes

SLOs are general statements about what it is faculty members want students to know, be able to do, or value upon completing a particular course.

In a history course, an example of knowledge would be the causes of the Civil War; an example of a skill would be reading primary sources; an example of a value would be respecting diverse points of view in understanding an historical event.

In a chemistry course, an example of knowledge would be the periodic table; an example of a skill would be conducting and recording a valid experiment; an example of a value would be recognizing the importance of the Scientific Method in establishing and confirming new knowledge.

Generally, the SLO is written in a clear concise manner using language that both students and faculty will understand. More specifically, the SLO needs to employ an action verb that describes how the student will demonstrate this knowledge, skill or value.

For instance, if the Geography department wants students to know the major landscaping processes, they would not want to write an SLO that uses "know" as the verb; instead, they would want to use a verb that describes how students will demonstrate the level of cognitive skill as defined on "Bloom's Taxonomy." For this reason, they might write the SLO in the following manner:

Students describe the major landscaping processes and how they modify the earth's physical landscape; or

Students explain the major landscaping processes and how they modify the earth's physical landscape.

Bloom's Taxonomy provides a comprehensive list of measurable action verbs. It also links these action verbs to seven cognitive activities: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. For example, the cognitive activity "Comprehension" is associated with verbs like "compare," "describe," "explain," etc. The cognitive activity "Analysis" is associated with verbs like "analyze," "appraise," and "categorize," etc. And the cognitive activity "Synthesis" is associated with verbs like arrange, assemble, collect, etc.

Below are examples of meaningful SLOs written by different departments around campus:

At the conclusion of Math 60, students create, analyze, and interpret linear models of real world applications.

At the conclusion of Geography 101, students explain the major landscape shaping processes and how they modify the earth's physical landscape.

At the conclusion of English 52, students employ a writing process to write a complete essay.

Some Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them

There are a number of common mistakes made when writing SLOs that can be easily corrected. The most common are writing SLOs that are too broad, that include benchmark percentages, and that include assessment methods. Below are examples of each and how each can be corrected.

Sometimes an SLO can be too broad so that it identifies no discernible knowledge or skill. For example,

80% of the students will successfully pass the course as reflected in receiving a grade of Credit or "C" or higher

In this SLO the faculty member identifies the percentage of students she would like to pass the course (a benchmark percentage), and she does not identify what knowledge or skill the student must demonstrate in order to pass the course.

The next example has a similar problem, and adds something new:

Students will each design and implement a comprehensive, end-of-semester project to demonstrate their abilities applying the concepts and skills they learned throughout the course with an expected success rate of 65%

In this SLO, the faculty member identifies the percentage of students he hopes to pass the course, he does not identify the skills or knowledge he wants the students to demonstrate in order to pass the course. Instead, he describes the assessment method used to assess the student -- a percentage, and an assessment method, but no knowledge or skill.

The next example identifies clearly what the student should know and be able to do at the conclusion of the course.

Upon completion of CDPE 10, "Introduction to Family Development," the student explains how children develop and learn, and constructs learning opportunities that support children's physical, cognitive and psychosocial development at a proficiency level of 75% or higher on assessment using multiple measures as defined in methods of evaluation.

In this SLO the faculty member identifies a body of knowledge ("how students develop and learn") and a skill ("construct learning opportunities . . ."). She then goes on to identify the percentage of students who should demonstrate this knowledge and skill, and mentions that a variety of assessment tools may be used to assess the SLO.

The SLO Committee recommends that SLO statements not specify a percentage because it does not provide meaningful information about how well students learned the knowledge or skill. Moreover, percentages raise the specter of SLOs being used for faculty evaluation, making faculty suspicious of the process. Thus, a percentage does little good and can potentially do much harm.

The SLO Committee also recommends that SLOs not include an assessment method. The same SLO can be assessed by different faculty members in different ways. By placing an assessment method on the SLO, the faculty member is suggesting that the SLO should be assessed in only one way. This restricts other faculty members from developing new and perhaps better ways to assess the SLO.

With these recommendations in mind, the first and second examples would be rewritten in a manner that eliminates the percentages, that the second example also eliminate the assessment method, and that they both be written so that the SLO expresses clearly what it is that the student should know or be able to do by the conclusion of the course.

The third example is much easier to revise. It need only eliminate the percentage and the assessment so that it reads:

Upon completion of CDPE 10, "Introduction to Family Development," the student explains how children develop and learn, and constructs opportunities that support children's physical, cognitive and psychosocial development.

In this SLO, the faculty members could consider splitting this SLO into two separate SLOs, one for the knowledge ("understand how children develop and learn"), one for the skill ("constructs learning opportunities that support. . .") This, however, should be decided by the faculty members.

A Less Common Mistake and How to Fix it

The next SLO provides a good example of why faculty should write approximately four to six SLOs for a course rather than just one. Often when faculty members write just one SLO for a course, they include all that they want the student to know or be able to do for the course in the single SLO. For example,

At the conclusion of Art 120, students will create and present 2-D design projects in traditional and digital media that incorporate historical and contemporary approaches to color and design theories, practices, and materials.

To be clear, the faculty member has done a very good job of identifying what is she wants the students to know or be able to do by the conclusion of the course; that is, she wants students to 1) know the historical and contemporary approaches to color; 2) know the historical and contemporary approaches to design theory; 3) demonstrate the practices of design, and 4) incorporate the materials of design.

In this case, the SLOs for Art 120 might be written as such (using Bloom's Taxonomy):

Students compare and contrast historical and contemporary approaches to color;

Students compare and contrast historical and contemporary approaches to design theory;

Students employ correct practices to create two-dimensional projects; and

Students utilize appropriate material to create two-dimensional projects.

The impulse to include a majority of the knowledge and skills in a single SLO may arise from the fear that if one writes several SLOs for a course, one will have to assess all those SLOs each year or even each semester. This, however, is not the case. Regardless of the number of SLOs for a course, faculty members will assess only one SLO for the course each year. In this case, by breaking the SLO into four different SLOs, the faculty member actually makes the assessment more manageable and more meaningful.

Indeed, the instructor can presumably use the same assessment method -- the 2-D project created by the students--for each of the SLOs. She can use the project one year to assess students' understanding of color, the next year to assess their understanding of design theory; the next, to assess their understanding and ability to execute practices; and the next, to assess their understanding and ability to incorporate appropriate materials.

However, the various elements should be separated into four different SLOs so that each element can be assessed individually. By doing so, the instructor can better know how well students understand color, or design theory, or practices, or materials. Also, the SLO begins by identifying the means of assessment, a 2-D design project; for the reasons mentioned above, it is best not to include an assessment method in the SLO.

A Course Needs a Complete Set of SLOs

Generally a three unit course has not one SLO but one set of SLOs, usually between four to six SLOs. A course has a set of four to six SLOs because the SLOs should identify all that you want the students to know or be able to do when they complete the course. Rarely do we want students to know one thing.

In order to determine the correct number of SLOs for your course, you should align your SLOs to your Course Outline. To learn how to do this, please visit the "Why and How to Align SLOs to the Course Outline" section of the webpage.

Below are examples of sets of SLOs from three different courses:

Adult Education ESL 2:

1) Students describe themselves to others in brief conversation;

2) Students comprehend short, simple conversations;

3) Students comprehend short paragraphs;

4) Students write compete sentences on a topic, using proper paragraph indentation; and

5) Students employ regular and irregular verbs correctly in written and spoken communication.

Reading 42:

1) Students recognize relationships between letters and their sound;

2) Students use word parts and context clues to understand the meaning of a word;

3) Students use a dictionary entry to find relevant information about words;

4) Students identify the stated main idea in the paragraph; and

5) Students distinguish between major and supporting details in a paragraph.

Philosophy 103:

1) Students recognize the difference between arguments and non-arguments (explanations, descriptions, and reports);

2) Students identify the conclusion of an argument;

3) Students identify and evaluate the support for the conclusion;

4) Students recognize the context and purpose of an argument; and

5) Students produce written arguments that follow Standard English and documentation.

Writing SLOs for a course, individually and in sets, allows the faculty to articulate for themselves and for the students exactly what it is they want the students to know, be able to do, and to value. In this way, the writing of SLOs is the first step, but only the first step, in improving teaching and learning.