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Identifying and Articulating Student Learning Outcomes

When I first joined Virginia Tech, we were two years away from our ten-year reaccreditation report and I was tasked with making sure roughly 240 degree programs were in compliance with accreditation standards. Although we had a strong faculty and curriculum, many people weren’t used to setting learning outcomes and preparing for accreditation. I, of course, realized I wouldn’t be able to accomplish this feat on my own, and began thinking of ways I could enlist the help of faculty across campus.

I created a series of workshops to teach department heads and other leaders about learning outcomes and assessment, which would allow them to take the strategies and tactics back to their faculty and spread the knowledge. This blog post represents the first workshop in that series and will be followed by posts covering the information from the second and third workshops. Here is an overview of the topics:

Workshop #1: Identifying and Articulating Student Learning Outcomes
Workshop #2: Gathering and Analyzing Information About Student Achievement of Outcomes
Workshop #3: Using Information Gathered to Improve Learning

For the first installment we start with a simple question- What do we expect a student to know and be able to do when he or she graduates from this program? We won’t even use the “A-word” (cough, assessment, cough), so as to avoid all the negative connotations and feelings around it. Asking this question allows us to focus solely on what we can do to improve teaching and learning.

In many departments and programs, no one asks this question. It’s an important one though, and while it may cause disagreements among faculty, it can also be powerful and unifying.

Take a history department as an example. If you ask each professor what they think a student should know and be able to do upon graduation, you would likely get a wide variety of answers, from the history of ancient civilizations to important events in the recent Middle East and everything in between. I’ve seen faculty in shouting matches debating over such topics, but these arguments can be resolved easily by moving beyond the notion that we are talking about rote memorization and facts. The outcomes I’m talking about are bigger and more important than that.

You are looking for three to five (yes, that few!) outcomes that are truly vital. You may be wondering how you decide these outcomes when students cover so much content and material during their education...

One strategy is to start backwards. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins wrote Understanding by Design, which approaches curriculum design backwards. Rather than starting at the beginning by determining what you will teach and fitting outcomes to the curriculum, try starting with the assessment piece by once again asking what students should know and be able to do. You may not end up redoing your entire course curriculum based on your answers, but thinking this way helps you develop your ideas and perhaps refine your course content.

To give you an idea of the scale needed for these kinds of outcomes, we can look at some other research by McTighe and Wiggins. We can’t expect students to remember everything they were taught, so these authors suggest that we categorize knowledge into three different levels:
  • Introductory and background material for context (if they don’t remember items in this bucket two years from now, it’s not a huge issue)
  • Important for students to know and do (examples include research skills, scientific method, etc.)
  • Enduring learning (this is the material a student should remember 10 years after the program and is much higher level than the first two. For example, rather than remembering facts of civil war battles, they have a complete understanding of the impact of the Civil War in America.)

The last bucket, enduring learning, is what we are aiming for in our programmatic outcomes. Getting everyone together to brainstorm can help broaden the department’s thinking. I always used an example involving Virginia Tech’s fierce rival, University of Virginia, to help get faculty thinking during these brainstorms. If I was meeting with colleagues from the Biology department, for example, I would pose a hypothetical situation to stimulate their thinking:

Imagine one of your students completed their bachelor’s degree in biology at Virginia Tech and is now pursuing their masters at University of Virginia. Now imagine you run into one of their professors at UVA the following year. If this professor said your student lacked knowledge in an important area or couldn’t perform a specific skill, which deficiencies would make you feel as though you failed that student? And alternatively, what types of things would you want your student to excel at beyond other students and distinguish them as a Virginia Tech alumni?

Try substituting your own institution’s rival and pose this question during the session. A little competition may help spark new ideas.

After you’ve developed your outcomes, it’s time to write them down. Writing learning outcomes for such big ideas can also be a challenge. Often times we try to cram so much into one outcome that it ends up containing three or four outcomes and becomes impossible to measure. We want the outcomes to be enduring, but we also have to make sure they are measurable and will provide accurate and reliable data. The SMART acronym helps guide our efforts in achieving both.

Specific- accurately states what the student will be able to achieve
Measurable- must be able to determine accurately student achievement of outcome
Achievable- within range of abilities of the student
Relevant- relates to the key aim of the program
Time-scaled- achievable within the range of the program

Making sure you follow the tenets of this acronym will guarantee you are creating outcomes that will keep you on track and allow you to measure and improve learning based on your data.

Here are some examples of SMART learning outcomes to inspire you:

  • Students will be able to demonstrate the approach, logic and application of the scientific method and be able to apply these principles to real-life problems.
  • Students will be able to identify, and describe to the lay person the important institutions and determinants of economic activity at the local, regional, national, and international levels.
  • Students will demonstrate mastery of note-taking techniques by correctly using at least 3 different note-taking methods for classroom lecture.
  • Students will develop a thorough understanding of the complex processes, communications, and collaboration systems associated with the production of a live theatrical event.
  • Upon completion of the Study Abroad program, students will show an increase in open-mindedness through a 10-point increase on an open-mindedness index.
You’re almost done! After you’ve written your outcomes and determined how you will measure them, make sure to write them down and keep track of them throughout the year. This is where a system like Weave can come in handy. We used Weave at Virginia Tech and it helped us provide evidence of our students’ achievement of student learning outcomes, as well as document our continuous efforts to establish a culture of evidence.

As educators, every one of us should have a commitment to our students knowing specific material and mastering specific skills by the time they graduate. That is what this work is all about. Focusing on the true goal of assessment (okay, I said it!) helps make the process more engaging, enjoyable and meaningful. We have the opportunity to determine what we believe is truly important for our students to master in order to be successful after graduation and beyond, and then work to achieve that ideal. I’m not sure what could be more powerful than that.

Check back over the next few weeks to read the second and third installments in this series, focused on gathering and analyzing data on student outcomes and then using that information to improve learning. Subscribe to our blog to receive a notification when we post!

What obstacles have you encountered when trying to set learning outcomes in your department? What has worked well for you when creating student learning outcomes? Comment below and let us know!