So, how are YOUR learning outcomes?

I was sitting this weekend reading a document from the National Institute on Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) when the inspiration for this article hit me like a Honda CRV hitting a Mack truck. This article, titled “More than you think, Less than what we Need: Learning Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education” can be viewed and printed at

The authors reported out eight observations based upon their survey findings. The very first finding discussed states, “Most institutions have identified a common set of learning outcomes that apply to all students.” Guess what! We do this too! Okay… through my quirky six degrees of separation, this led me to think back to our last Student Learning Committee meeting and a discussion regarding programmatic learning outcomes. This led to the question stated above: “How are your learning outcomes?”

Programmatic learning outcomes are a reality for all of us in programs. But does this mean that our learning outcomes are good or bad? Mediocre? Precise? Vague? Well-written? Poorly written? I could go on and on. I now want you to think of your programmatic learning outcomes? Do any of these descriptors apply? I can tell you from experience that I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding program-level learning outcomes. This begs the next question, “What is a good learning outcome?” Let’s take a look…

Learning outcomes should come from an educational need. They are usually described in the terms of knowledge, skills, or attitude, serving as a guideline for course content, instruction, and assessment. This seems simple. A GOOD learning outcome is a learning outcome that is observable, measurable, and it must be doable by the student. Are yours? GOOD learning outcomes utilize action verbs, such as compile, demonstrate, plan, predict, and explain to list but a few. BAD learning outcomes are vague, may be based on internal processes such as feelings, and are hard or impossible to measure. BAD learning outcomes incorporate verbs that are not action-oriented and/or are hard to measure, such as know, become aware of, become familiar with, appreciate, understand, and learn to list a few. Can you see the difference between the terms “demonstrate” and “learn?” So, how are your learning outcomes?

OMG! LOL! Okay, you say… my learning outcomes may need some help. What do I do? Well, let’s start by panicking- yell, scream, stress… go ahead and get it out of your system. Now, breathe deeply and let’s get ‘er done! List your learning outcomes and start by objectively answering some questions about them:

  1. Do I have similar, duplicating, or overlapping learning outcomes?
  2. Do my learning outcomes size up what those who work in a field need to know to be successful, and would my advisory board agree?
  3. Do I have any learning outcomes that are outmoded or outdated?
  4. Do I have any learning outcomes that are non-observable?
  5. Do I have any learning outcomes that are unmeasurable?

If you answered yes to questions 1, 3, 4, & 5 and no to question 2, you need to work on your learning outcomes! You can meet as a program, you may include your Dean, and you most certainly should include/utilize your advisory board in the re-write. It is not hard to do! Personally, our program met last semester with our advisory board and locked ourselves in a classroom until we hammered out a revised mission statement and programmatic learning outcomes.

In these troubled budgetary times, it is better to be proactive and demonstrate the willingness to fix what needs to be fixed in your program or division and change what needs to be changed. Be the train, rather than be run over by the train! Visualize this: I am a train, I am a train… Some may choose to wait until their next program review to make programmatic changes. I say, “Do you have three (or however many) years to burn on mediocre or bad learning outcomes?” “Are you doing a service to your students, industry partners, other colleges or yourself by sticking with those mediocre or bad learning outcomes?”

Apply these standards and you’ll be rock solid: My learning outcomes …

  • are precise,
  • are observable,
  • are measurable,
  • are full of action verbs,
  • correctly convey what the student will need to do in the field, and
  • are what I want my students to remember five years after they graduate.
That said I end where I began: So, how are your learning outcomes?