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 teaching and 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?

Intended student learning outcomes define the scope (breadth and depth) of what students will “know and be able to do” upon completion of the degree program.  They:

  • Are explicit
  • Are learning-centered
  • Align with the degree program purpose
  • Are appropriate to the level of the degree offered (i.e., Master’s degree outcomes are more rigorous and comprehensive than Bachelor’s degree outcomes)
  • If a degree program has emphases, the outcomes capture the learning associated with both the common and unique curricular requirements of the degree
  • For undergraduate degree programs, integrate University-wide initiatives, where appropriate (e.g., Global Learning themes of global engagement, diversity, and environmental sustainability; Information Literacy/Fluency; Liberal Studies; Diversity)

Are explicit

We'll begin with two examples, showing different levels of "explicit-ness:" 

Not very explicit


Students will demonstrate the ability to engage and apply appropriate research methods and statistics.


Data-Based Decision Making and Accountability

  • School psychologists have knowledge of varied methods of assessment and data collection methods for identifying strengths and needs, developing effective services and programs, and measuring progress and outcomes.
  • As part of a systematic and comprehensive process of effective decision making and problem solving that permeates all aspects of service delivery, school psychologists demonstrate skills to use psychological and educational assessment, data collection strategies, and technology resources and apply results to design, implement, and evaluate response to services and programs.


Knowledge of ethical standards and legal obligations

The students will exhibit ethical behavior and professional conduct.   The student will:

  • Provide competent, compassionate and respectful medical service to all patients
  • Display honesty with patients and colleagues
  • Respond appropriately to persons of the health care team who exhibit impairment, lack of professional conduct or competence, or who engage in fraud or deception
  • Demonstrate a commitment to maintaining clinical competence
  • Comply with established principles governing intellectual honesty

What is it that makes an outcome explicit?  

One approach is to focus on the 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.

Another approach is to integrate the content, skills, and purpose of the discipline. 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?



Are learning-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.”


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.
Are appropriate to the level of the degree offered

An example of what is meant by "level" is that a Master’s degree outcomes are more rigorous and comprehensive than Bachelor’s degree outcomes.

What is the intended learning upon completion of the degree program?

Some faculty groups have found The Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) helpful as they articulated differentiated learning outcomes for undergraduate and graduate degrees. The DQP is a document compiled by a group of experts, with the support of the non-profit Lumina Foundation (, that articulates the properties of learning characteristic to different degree “levels” (Associate’s Degree, Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree). 

The examples pulled from the DQP articulate what skills students would have at a Bachelor’s or Master’s level.  Of course, the specific content knowledge of the discipline would need to be included in the outcomes, as well as the specific purpose of learning developed by faculty in the degree program.


Associate’s Degree

Bachelor’s Degree

Master’s Degree

  • Describes the scope of the field of study, its core theories and practices, using field-related terminology, and offers a similar explication of at least one related field.


• Defines and explains the structure, styles and practices of the field of study using its tools, technologies, methods and specialized terms.


• Elucidates the major theories, research methods and approaches to inquiry and schools of practice in the field of study, articulates their sources, and illustrates both their applications and their relationships to allied fields of study.


  • Applies tools, technologies and methods common to the field of study to selected questions or problems.


• Addresses a familiar but complex problem in the field of study by assembling, arranging and reformulating ideas, concepts, designs and techniques.


• Constructs a summative project, paper, performance or application that draws on current research, scholarship and techniques in the field of study.


• Assesses the contributions of major figures and organizations in the field of study, describes its major methodologies and practices, and illustrates them through projects, papers, exhibits or performances.


  • Generates substantially error-free products, reconstructions, data, juried exhibits or performances appropriate to the field of study.

• Frames, clarifies and evaluates a complex challenge in the field of study and one other field, using theories, tools, methods and scholarship from those fields to produce independently or collaboratively an investigative, creative or practical work illuminating that challenge.


• Articulates significant challenges involved in practicing the field of study, elucidates its leading edges, and explores the current limits of theory, knowledge and practice through a project that lies outside conventional boundaries.


If a degree program has emphases...

If a degree program has emphases, the outcomes capture the learning associated with both the common and unique curricular requirements of the degree

As with the other characteristics, fulfilling this requirement can take a variety of forms, such as:


  • A core set of outcomes articulates what students learn upon completion of the common curricular requirements and emphasis outcomes articulate what students learn upon completion of the unique curricular requirements of the emphasis,
  • -OR- core and emphasis outcomes are merged and collectively represent the common and unique curricular requirements.


Integrating University-wide initiatives into undergraduate degree outcomes
The degree program's learning outcomes would articulate the student learning occurring in University-wide initiatives, that the program actively engages in, such as the Global Learning Initiative, Diversity, and Liberal Studies.