Degree Program Student Learning Outcomes

What are degree program student learning outcomes?

Degree Program Student Learning Outcomes are statements of what students will know and be able to do (e.g., knowledge, concepts, ways of knowing, skills, values, attitudes, dispositions, etc.) upon completion of a degree program.

What is the purpose of degree program student learning outcomes?

Primarily, Degree Program Student Learning Outcomes make learning purposeful.  They provide a framework and a common language that both faculty and students can consistently apply to identify how a course (or even an assignment or learning experience) contributes to the purpose of the degree program.

Degree Program Student Learning Outcomes facilitate student learning through:

  • Providing explicit goals for learning that intentionally describe the integration of skills and knowledge that students will accumulate upon completion of their degree program;
  • Identifying why students are learning what they are learning in a manner that intentionally identifies the purpose of learning disciplinary skills and knowledge (discipline-specific applications, “real-world” applications); and
  • Providing a mechanism for students to organize new knowledge and skills in ways that guide the retrieval and application of new knowledge.

The purpose is to translate the disciplinary concepts and skills of the expert (the faculty members) in a manner that can be understood by someone standing outside of the discipline.

How do degree program student learning outcomes serve the design of the curriculum?

Effective outcomes facilitate student learning because they build the foundation for the degree program’s curriculum.  When used in curriculum design, degree program student learning outcomes:

  • Establish the learning priorities of the degree program;
  • Communicate a unified vision of what faculty intend students will be able to achieve upon completion of the degree program;
  • Tie together learning opportunities within and across courses; and
  • Communicate how experiences contribute to and build learning throughout the students’ degree program.

The purpose is to assist faculty in collectively teaching toward the same program learning goals.  In this manner, faculty can use the degree program student learning outcomes to guide the design of their curriculum to achieve faculty-driven learning priorities.  

What are the characteristics of a high quality degree program student learning outcome?

High quality degree program student learning outcomes exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. Learner-centered
  2. Align with the degree program mission and purpose
  3. Focus on the central skills and knowledge of the discipline
  4. Integrate content, skills, and purpose

What does it mean for an outcome to be "learner-centered?"

A learner-centered outcome shifts the focus of the outcome from what the faculty members are teaching to what a student is meant to learn.  It accomplishes this through:

  • Translating the disciplinary concepts and skills of the expert (the faculty members) in a manner that can be understood by someone standing outside of the discipline;
  • Identifying why students are learning what they are learning in a manner that intentionally identifies the purpose behind learning skills and knowledge (discipline-specific applications, “real-world” applications); and
  • Providing a mechanism for students to organize new knowledge and skills in ways that guide the retrieval and application of that new knowledge.

Here are some examples:

The example below demonstrates the specific forms of critical analysis that a student in the history program will develop in their pursuit of becoming an historian.

An example that needs improvement

A highly effective example

Students will learn critical analysis.

What discipline is this in?  What type of critical analysis?  If the faculty member cannot describe the type of analysis, how will they be able to convey it to the student?

Interpret secondary sources critically through the following practices:

- by identifying specific interpretations of a topic;

- by identifying points of conflict between various historians’ interpretations of the problem; 

- by inferring assumptions underlying those historians interpretations of the problem

- by applying different assumptions to the same subject matter and generate alternate questions and possible conclusions. 

The following example demonstrates how to move the perspective from a teacher-centered approach, and instead, to identify what students will get out of the experience.  Writing the outcome from the students' perspective provides a foundation of meaning to which learners can "fasten" the concepts and skills of your discipline.

An example that needs improvement

A highly effective example

Opportunities to become familiar with research theories and methodologies

 

This approach is entirely teacher-centered, describing what the teacher will cover, not what the student will learn through this experience.

The role of evidence and qualitative and quantitative methods in sociology, such that the student will be able to:

- identify basic methodological approaches and describe the general role of methods in building sociological knowledge;

- compare and contrast the basic methodological approaches for gathering data;

- design a research study in an area of choice and explain why various decisions were made; and

- critically assess a published research report and explain how the study could have been improved.

Below is an example identifying the difference between a program goal and a degree program student learning outcome.

An example that needs improvement

A highly effective example

Graduates will integrate quickly into the workplace or advanced education due to an emphasis on high quality teaching, advising, and mentoring.

 

This statement should be in the Mission and Purpose of the program because it identifies what is important to faculty in delivering the degree program.  But, it has little to do with what students will learn.

Knowledge of the technical aspects of construction and building systems, and energy conservation, as well as working knowledge of legal codes and regulations related to construction, environmental systems, and human health and safety, and the ability to apply such knowledge appropriately in specific projects.

This is the learning outcome that, if achieved, will ensure students “integrate quickly into the workplace.”

 

What does it mean for an outcome to "align with a degree program's mission and purpose?"

High quality degree program student learning outcomes align with the degree program mission and purpose.  The mission and purpose of the degree program defines the future activities for which the degree program is preparing students.  Some programs may have multiple potential directions for their students, such as careers, graduate school, or general skills and knowledge that can be applied to a variety of futures.  The degree program student learning outcomes should be a natural deeper description of the knowledge and skills (attitudes, ways of knowing, etc.) students will achieve, and through the achievement of those outcomes, they will be successful in the future potential pathways identified by the degree program. 

For example, the purpose of the Secondary Education programs is to provide students all of the skills and knowledge they need to become teachers in their specific content area.  Learning outcomes in Secondary Education programs encompass all of the skills and knowledge to develop curriculum, assess students' learning, and modify curriculum based on what students have learned.  In addition, they include all of the knowledge of the content discipline of the degree program (e.g., English, Biology, Mathematics, etc.).

Another example is Geology.  Their mission is to prepare students for three potential areas: further study in Geology, a career in Geology, or going directly into a career that may or may not be related to Geology once they complete their degree.  Degrees with broader goals tend to focus more on the elements of critical thinking and how learning how to think critically in the discipline will provide success in a variety of areas.  Critical thinking goals show up in the Degree Program Student Learning Outcomes through clearer definitions of the types of analysis and synthesis students learn to engage in. 

An excellent example of critical thinking is found in the area of History, as follows:

Make arguments based on evidence from primary and secondary sources through the following practices:

  • by comparing his or her findings with other evidence from the period;
  • by formulating conclusions about the issue under study;
  • by testing these ideas against additional evidence and the ideas of other historians;
  • by developing their own historical interpretations;
  • by addressing conflicting evidence and alternative perspectives;
  • and by explicitly acknowledging that society’s concerns inform his or her evaluations of the past.
What does it mean for an outcome to "focus on the central skills and knowledge of the discipline?"

High quality degree program student learning outcomes focus on central skills and knowledge of the discipline. They might reflect the uniqueness of the disciple, the best thinking in the discipline, and/or disciplinary standards regarding learning. Consider the following examples:

Uniqueness of the Discipline

Nursing students will synthesize evidence and nursing knowledge to evaluate and modify clinical nursing practice, in order to provide holistic, safe, comprehensive, patient-centered care.

This program student learning outcome focuses on the higher-order thinking skills of synthesis and evaluation common to many degree programs, but asks students to apply these skills in the unique context of Nursing: clinical nursing practice.

Best Thinking in the Discipline

Interior Design students will understand the technical issues of human factors, including areas such as programming, environmental control systems, anthropometrics, ergonomics, and proxemics. The ability to integrate human factor considerations with design elements is essential.

In keeping with the latest research regarding human factors as they relate to interior design, this Interior Design program student learning outcome clearly specifies various areas such as ergonomics that students are expected to understand and apply to their own designs.

Disciplinary Standards Regarding Learning

English Language Arts candidates will engage students in meaningful discussions for the purposes of interpreting and evaluating ideas presented through oral, written, and/or visual forms.

As an NCATE/CAEP-accredited program, English Language Arts incorporates accreditation standards for teacher candidates as part of their program student learning outcomes.

What does it mean to "integrate content, skills, and purpose?"

High quality degree program student learning outcomes integrate content, skills, and purpose. In other words, the content or knowledge of the program is combined with skills or methods of applying that knowledge. The knowledge and skills are then applied or used for a particular purpose most commonly related to the discipline of the degree program.

Outcomes that are understandable to faculty and students—and other program stakeholders--contain three components:

  • Content (what is learned)
  • Skills (engagement in some type of action that uses the content that is learned), and
  • Purpose (describes how the content and skills are used in the discipline to achieve the broader goals of the discipline).

Why are these three elements important?  These elements provide students with a context for their learning.  In other words, they not only identify content or knowledge that they will learn, but also how they will use that content and for what purpose they are learning the content. At the same time, these elements provide faculty with guidance as far as designing the program’s curriculum. The articulation of program student learning outcomes benefits both students and faculty by making the curriculum more transparent and making expectations across programs and courses more consistent.

In the table below, you will find examples that demonstrate the differences among learner-centered degree program student learning outcomes, outcomes missing one or more of the important contextual elements, and outcomes providing no context.

Learner-Centered Degree Program Student Learning Outcomes

Outcomes Missing Learner Context(s)

Outcomes Providing No Context

Evaluate the effectiveness of global logistics networks, including the environmental impact of logistics activities, to develop reasoned proposals for improvement that support the strategy of the firm as well as the supply chain as a whole

Use statistical data to make effective decisions in business

 

What types of statistics, for what types of decisions, for what types of business goals?

Demonstrate quantitative reasoning

 

Which degree program does this apply to, how does this apply to the context of the learner, and how is the learner going to use this vague ability in the real world?

Express personal experiences on concrete topics related to work, home, school, and leisure activities using all major time frames (past, present, and future) and the sentence structure and vocabulary of the culture, in order to interact with native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non- natives, and handle complicated or unexpected communicative tasks

Master and employ art historical vocabulary

 

 

In what types of writing and using what types of analysis? What’s the broader purpose of mastering this vocabulary… as an Art Historian and in other professions? 

Possesses written communication skills

 

 

Which degree program does this apply to, how does this apply to the context of the learner, and how is the learner going to use this vague ability in the real world?

 

Developing New Program Learning Outcomes

Click here to explore processes for developing new program learning outcomes

The time you invest developing your program learning outcomes will save time later in the assessment process, because it will help you identify useful and meaningful assessment questions, and design effective measures of assessment.  If you find that you are spending a large amount of time or becoming frustrated, it is time to stop and ask for help.  If that happens, please contact us, and let us help you simplify things.

To access the worksheet that corresponds to the steps below, please click here.

Step 1.  Identify the goals of your degree program: For what are you preparing your students?

Begin by examining your program’s mission statement, and the mission of your College and NAU.  What are the goals of your degree program? For what are you preparing students to accomplish upon graduating from the University?  (e.g., Continuing to graduate school?  Preparation for a specific career or profession? Being a productive citizen? etc.)

Step 2.  Expansion: Creating an exhaustive (or nearly exhaustive) list of possibilities:

The process we recommend in developing new program learning outcomes is to identify as many of the knowledge areas, skills, values, attitudes/ dispositions possible for your program.  Please keep in mind that different disciplines identify “knowledge,” “skills,” “values,” and “dispositions” differently.  It is not necessary to categorize each of these in the same manner as the examples below.  The important point is to identify those essential defining areas that, together, create an ideal student in your degree program.

Some examples of knowledge areas, skills, ways of knowing, values, attitudes and dispositions include:

  • Knowledge Areas: Theories and their related content, Broad content knowledge all members of a discipline should master, Sub-sets of content knowledge that is unique to emphases or specializations within your discipline, etc.
  • Skills: Analysis, Application of theory/ knowledge, Creativity, Design, Leadership, Problem solving, Team participation, Writing, Oral presentations, Technical skills, Clinical skills, etc.
  • Ways of knowing: Scientific method, Quantitative reasoning, etc.
  • Values: Civic knowledge and engagement (local and global), Intercultural knowledge and competence engaging across diverse populations, Ethical reasoning, Lifelong learning, etc.
  • Attitudes/ Dispositions: Empathy and caring for patients; Listening; etc.

Think through the courses of your program.  Write down an exhaustive list of ideas for each of the areas above, as they relate to your degree program and field of study.

If your program has existed for a fair amount of time, but you have never developed Program Learning Outcomes, another approach that may be useful is to gather in one document all of the course learning outcomes from your core courses, as well as your electives. 

Review your list and consider the following question in creating your outcomes: What will an “ideal” student graduating from your program know and be able to do?  Include these if they are not on the list.  Focus on what the “ideal” student graduating from your program should be able to know, do, and value, as well as the attitudes and dispositions that would assist students in achieving the highest level of success in your field. 

Again, review your list, and now consider this question: What are the defining characteristics students must master to obtain a degree in YOUR program?  Include these if they are not on the list. What are the unique opportunities and approaches which you hope students will experience, and how will that manifest itself in students’ learning?

Step 3.  Contraction: Revising the many possibilities into a set of clear outcomes.

Now, we’re going to take the results of Step 2, and reduce them to a set of 7 to 11 program learning outcomes.  Begin by organize the topics and outcomes on your lists into related batches.  (Identify areas of content knowledge that are closely related, and place them together.  Do the same with the other categories (skills, values, etc.).)  If you haven’t already, begin to connect these across categories (knowledge to skills, values to attitudes, etc.).  For example, maybe at the program level “writing comprehension” occurs through completing a scientific investigation, or other analysis.  Particularly focus on identify connections between outcomes that are unobservable (such as understanding a concept, listening to a patient, etc.) to outcomes that are observable (completing Mock Board Exams, writing projects, presentations, etc.). 

Still have too many outcomes?  Next, rank the overall importance of each (Essential, Very Important, Important, Somewhat Important).  From this data and follow-up conversations, identify a final selection of characteristics that faculty believe most suit the degree program as it is uniquely taught by the faculty members at NAU.

Use the following questions to identify whether your outcome accomplishes the University Assessment Committee criteria for a distinguished Program Learning Outcome:

  • How does it support your program’s mission?
  • What learning goals does it accomplish for your program?
  • How is it directly related to your discipline or field of study?
  • Is it demonstrable?  How will you know it when you see it?

~Adapted from Creating Learning Outcomes from www.Stanford.Edu and ASU’s Assessment Handbook

Revising Program Learning Outcomes

Click here to view a process for revising your program learning outcomes
Step 1

Begin with a discussion focusing on what the “ideal” student graduating from your program should be able to know, do, and value, as well as the attitudes and dispositions that would assist students in achieving the highest level of success in your field.

Step 2

Have each faculty member

  • Identify content areas, skills, values, attitudes, and/or dispositions that they teach in their courses, but which lay outside of the definitions of the current program student learning outcomes; and
  • Write down statements (including content areas, skills, values, attitudes and dispositions) they believe are missing from the program’s student learning outcomes, yet represent defining characteristics mastered by students to obtain a degree in your program.

Step 3

Compile and share these across the degree program (if desired, use a facilitator), discussing the connection of each and its importance to the degree program.  In these discussions, engage faculty in clarifying the outcome by asking the following:

  • Is it clear and explicit?  How can we increase its clarity and specificity?
  • Is it explicit enough that a student and faculty member will understand what will be accomplished upon completion of the degree program?
  • Are these outcomes for all students?  If our program has emphases, what outcomes are specific or tailored to those emphases?

Step 4

Rank (individually, or in a group) the overall importance of each (Essential, Very Important, Somewhat Important, Unimportant).  From this data and follow-up conversations, identify a final selection of characteristics that faculty believe most suit the degree program as it is uniquely taught by the faculty members at NAU.

Step 5

Make any revisions to ensure your program student learning outcomes accomplish each of the following:

  • Supports your program’s mission;
  • Identifies learning goals accomplished in your field/ discipline;
  • Is demonstrable by the student and observable by professors

~Adapted from Creating Learning Outcomes from www.Stanford.Edu