Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) at College of San Mateo - Faculty Toolkit: Understanding Learning Outcomes
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Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)
Faculty Toolkit: Understanding Learning Outcomes

Teachers must constantly ask themselves, regularly and thoughtfully, one central question:

"How are we doing?"

The institutional practice of asking and answering this question, and acting on what we find out, is what we call assessment.

(Note: There are other aspects to institutional self-assessment, notably productivity. This section, however, focuses on our effectiveness as teachers, rather than our institutional or cost-effectiveness.)

To help us monitor how we're doing, and to answer specific questions about specific issues, CSM faculty draw on many kinds of data, including (but not limited to):
  • Course-level rates of student success (i.e., grades);
  • Rates of persistence, retention, and transfer to four-year institutions;
  • Student learning outcomes assessment;
  • Rates of success in licensure exams;
  • Job placement rates and employer satisfaction;
  • Graduation rates (in some fields);
  • Student surveys, formal and informal;
  • Course and program alignment with professional or other external bodies.
Our Program Review reports offer each department and service a place to gather and publish our reflections on our achievements, using some selection of these and other measures, as appropriate. 

Student learning outcomes constitute one of the tools by which we can gauge how well we're doing.

What are student learning outcomes?

The National Institute for Student Learning Outcomes Assessment has created a Transparency Framework for creating and assessing learning outcomes:

Student learning outcomes statements clearly state the expected knowledge, skills, attitudes, competencies, and habits of mind that students are expected to acquire at an institution of higher education. Transparent student learning outcomes statements are:
  • Specific to institutional level and/or program level
  • Clearly expressed and understandable by multiple audiences
  • Prominently posted at or linked to multiple places across the website
  • Updated regularly to reflect current outcomes
  • Receptive to feedback or comments on the quality and utility of the information provided.
From "Providing Evidence of Student Learning: A Transparency Framework," 2012

Student learning outcomes are simple declarative statements that identify the specific skills, knowledge and abilities that students should achieve, and be able to demonstrate, as a result of a course of study or other activity.

SLOs for a course might look like this:

BUS 180 – MARKETING. Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:
  • Communicate clearly in written and oral form appropriate for various marketing situations
  • Identify and communicate factors that affect marketing success
  • Identify and communicate the key principles and practices of marketing
  • Identify and communicate the purpose and role of marketing.

SLOs for a program might look like this:


Upon successful completion of this degree, students will be able to:
  • Prepare and analyze financial statements.
  • Prepare and manage an operating budget.
  • Evaluate the impact of current economic conditions on a business.
  • Assess the legal implications of business decisions.

What do SLOs apply to?

ACCJC's most recently adopted Accreditation Standards on Student Learning Outcomes makes clear that we need to define, assess and publicize student learning outcomes for
  • every individual course (II.A.3);
  • every program, degree and certificate, including General Education requirements (I.B.2; II.A.3)
  • academic and other student support services (II.B.3; II.C.5)
  • different student populations (I.B.6).
Any new course, new lab hour or new service intended to support student learning must therefore have defined learning outcomes.

How do student learning outcomes differ from course objectives?

Our course outlines already require that we express course objectives by using specifically chosen verbs, following Bloom's taxonomy, to describe the skills and abilities the students are supposed to end up with.

The only concrete difference between learning outcomes and objectives is this: SLOs must be assessable, and they must be regularly assessed.

CSM currently has not adopted a single definition for SLOs (as opposed to course objectives). We may wish to do so, either in response to state-wide mandates that define course planning, or as a matter of policy for ourselves. In the meantime, however, here are some ways you can think about learning outcomes and course objectives:
  • Make no distinction.

    In many of our course outlines, the language for "Course Objectives" and "Learning Outcomes" is identical.

  • Use the SLOs to summarize course objectives.

    Because you will need to assess SLOs regularly, this may not be the place to list, in detail, every significant course goal.  Many courses use the SLOs to summarize specific course objectives. BIOL 110, for example, has for one learning outcome that students can "explain the principles of evolution that underlie all of biology," an SLO that is broken down into several more specific learning objectives.

  • Use the SLOs to identify concrete and specific achievements.

    You might want to use the course objectives to define more aspirational outcomes – achievements that we hope students will ultimately develop based on the course, but which we can't measure at the end of the course.  This leaves the SLOs as the place where you define what you can measure or observe at the end of the course.

  • Align your SLOs to AA-T or professional requirements.

    In some disciplines, SLOs have been developed by professional bodies. In others, SLOs need to conform to state-wide guidelines for the AA-T curriculum. Make sure to establish how much latitude you have when writing your own outcomes. You may find that the outcomes are, to some degree, already planned.

How do student learning outcomes differ from grades?

As with course objectives, course grades cover much the same ground as learning outcomes.  The passing grade signifies, surely, that a student has demonstrated competence in the skills, knowledge and abilities imparted by the course. However, as with course objectives, student learning outcomes can reveal some things that grades can't.
  • SLOs can offer a detailed breakdown of the grade.

    Most courses require students to learn more than one thing, and most programs require students to master complex and interconnected skills and knowledge. Learning outcomes can reveal specific areas of weakness or strength in a course or program that are hidden behind individual grades. Thus, assessing specific learning outcomes can show that even in a class where (for instance) 75% of the students earn a passing grade, they are overall weakest on one particular skill or content area.

  • SLOs can offer an insight into students' assessment of their own knowledge, skills or abilities.

    Many instructors gauge success in learning outcomes through self-administered student surveys. The results of these can be compared with student grades, and help identify how students feel about what they're learning – where they are unclear.

  • SLOs can identify patterns of achievement where these are not part of the course grade.

    In some courses, students are graded not on specific achievements but on participation. Here, SLOs can measure actual achievement. In a Body Conditioning class (FITN 116), for instance, students receive their grade based on participation and commitment. But the SLOs identify measurable improvements to physical health: students will "Improve body composition, range of motion, overall body weight, resting heart rate, strength and endurance, and aerobic capacity."