Learning Outcomes

Writing Student Learning Outcomes for a Program of Study

The purpose of writing a program's learning outcomes is to articulate with clarity and completeness the learning and performance that all students will reliably demonstrate upon graduating from a program of study. This learning can be reflected in one or more domains:

  • Cognitive - enduring or essential knowledge. (What do you want graduates will know?)
  • Behavioral - skills and abilities.  (What will graduates will be able to do?)
  • Affective – attitudes, values or beliefs.  (What do you want your graduates to care about?)  

An outcomes-based approach to program definition is required for university accreditation as specified by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (http://www.nwccu.org/).  This brief guide will assist you in writing program outcomes from a student learning perspective.

Core Vocabulary

Upon embarking on the writing of student learning outcomes, most program directors seek clarification about the difference between objectives and outcomes and the way to write student-centered statements.  The vocabulary is as follows:


Learning outcomes broadly represent the achievement and integration of instructional objectives from courses in a program. Learning outcomes usually reflect higher-levels of thinking than objectives used to build a specific lecture or lesson. Learning outcomes are the achieved consequences of what was learned.

Teacher-focused versus Student-centered

  • Teacher-focused outcomes do not require student learning to be achieved. They only indicate that something has been taught. Teacher-focused experiences may require students to think logically but usually don't require them to think critically.
  • Student-centered outcomes reflect the learning that takes place in relation to the teaching performed.  Outcomes are usually the synthesis of several objectives and often involve higher levels of thinking or broader mastery than objectives.

Examples that combine the concepts of centeredness and objective/outcomes are:

  • Teacher-focused learning outcome (undesirable):
    Learning outcome: Faculty will provide a template covering all requites for scholarly curriculum vitae necessary to respond to an NIH grant proposal.
  • Student-centered learning outcome (desirable):
    The student will compile a curriculum vitae that includes all components necessary for successful submission to the NIH as a part of  a grant proposal.

Higher-order Thinking

In 1956, Benjamin Bloom headed a group of educational psychologists to develop a classification of intellectual behavior important in learning. During the 1990's a new group of cognitive psychologists, lead by Lorin Anderson (a former student of Bloom's), updated the taxonomy reflecting relevance to 21st century work. Figure 1 represents the new levels of COGNITIVE behavior associated with the long familiar Bloom's Taxonomy.

From the lowest level of cognitive development to the highest are:

  1. Remembering: Using memory to produce definitions, facts or lists or to  recite/retrieve information. 
  2. Understanding:  Constructing meaning such as interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, and explaining.  
  3. Applying:  Learned material is used through products such as models, presentations, interviews or simulations.
  4. Analyzing:  Breaking material or concepts into parts, determining how the parts relate or interrelate to one another or to an overall structure or purpose. 
  5. Evaluating:  Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing. 
  6. Creating: Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole.

Other important domains in learning – and very applicable to health sciences education – are the AFFECTIVE domain (beliefs, attitudes) and PSYCHOMOTOR domain (sometimes called BEHAVIORAL) that deals with ability to physically manipulate something and can often be coupled with the cognitive domain.  Surgical skills and the ability to run an IV line are psychomotor skills.

Writing Program Aims and Student Learning Outcomes

A degree program should be stated in both general (aims) and specific (student learning outcomes) terms.  Together they articulate the scope of a program, its connection to the institution's mission and enumerate the knowledge, skills and attitudes the ideal student graduating from a program will demonstrate.

Program Aims

Program aims state, in broad terms, what basic behaviors and beliefs a graduate will possess and/or demonstrate. 

Often, program aims tie a program's outcomes to the institution's mission statement to make the connection.

Example Program Aims

At the completion of the Bachelor of Science degree in the Department of Biology, a graduate will have acquired:

  • An understanding of major biological concepts and awareness of how these are connected within various areas of the biological and physical sciences.
  • The problem solving, analytical, and communication skills that will provide the foundation for lifelong learning and career development.
  • An appreciation of science as an integral part of society and everyday life.
  • The ability to evaluate and discuss contemporary social and ethical issues related to biology and medicine.

Student Learning Outcomes

Student learning outcomes address the following questions:

  • What knowledge, skills and attitudes should the ideal student graduating from your program demonstrate?
  • How will students demonstrate these capabilities?
  • What measurements can be used to assess growth (during the program) or mastery (upon graduation)?

The problem in creating SLOs is that it is difficult to identify all the behaviors involved in complex learning outcomes and to state them in terms that are specific enough to be observed or measured. 

With answers to the questions above, you can begin the task of writing your program's student learning outcomes.  The anatomy of each outcome statement (you'll have many) is:

  • Action word that identifies the knowledge, skill or attitude to be demonstrated
  • Statement that specifies the knowledge, skill or attitude
  • Criterion or standard for acceptable performance

Here are some examples of student learning outcomes for a program in psychology:

Poor:  Students should know the historically important systems of psychology.This is a poor SLO because it says neither what systems nor what information about each system students should know.  Greater specificity is needed.

Better: Students should know the psychoanalytic, Gestalt, behaviorist, humanistic and cognitive approaches to psychology. This is better because it indicates what theories students should know.  However, it doesn't detail how they should demonstrate that knowledge.

Best:  Students should be able to recognize and articulate the foundational assumptions, central ideas and dominant criticisms of the psychoanalytic, Gestalt, behaviorist, humanistic and cognitive approaches to psychology.This is the best SLO because it is more specific regarding the "what" and the "how" regarding the scope of knowledge and how students will demonstrate it.

The characteristics of good learning outcomes will:

  • Contain active verbs.
  • Specify the knowledge, skill or attitude that students should demonstrate.
  • Indicate  the level, criterion, or standard to which it will be demonstrated.
  • Include conditions (if they exist) under which students should demonstrate the ability.
  • Measure the outcome or indicate what is to be observed.
  • Not join two outcome statements that should be evaluated separately.