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Student Learning Outcomes (SLO)
Assessment Toolkit - Part I: Developing Learning Outcomes

What you will find here

Note: AV materials (PowerPoint, YouTube videos) also available on the Resources page.

What are Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)?

Definitions: The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment defines SLOs in this way:
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.
"Providing Evidence of Student Learning: A Transparency Framework," 2012

Here are some other ways to think of SLOs:

  • SLOs are a promise: Think of SLOs as a promise to the student about what they will take away from an interaction with the college: a workshop, a course, a degree or certificate program, or a transfer or General Education pattern. These are the specific knowledge components, skills, and abilities that they will have acquired upon completing this course or degree.

  • SLOs are checkpoints: Students do not come to college to excel in a series of discrete activities. They have larger goals: typically, completing a degree or certificate, or transferring to a four-year institution. Whether it is a financial aid workshop, a course, a degree program, or a transfer pattern, each interaction represents a stop along that journey. Each interaction also offers an opportunity to take stock: Did the students learn what they needed to learn from that interaction? Where can we make improvements? Learning outcomes, then, sit at the exit points that make sense to students: the end of a course, degree program, workshop, or use of a service.

  • SLOs create an institutional framework: SLOs serve specific functions in our assessment process. It is important to know what these functions are to write SLOs that are clear and helpful.
Function of SLOs Which means...
SLOs communicate the goals of a program, course, or service – not only to faculty and staff, but to current and prospective students, administrators, and anyone else who wants to understand our academic services.

SLOs should be clear, uncomplicated, and direct statements.
Note: In some disciplines, SLOs may not be comprehensible until a student has completed the course. A student might not know what it means to “Find the equation of a line” before taking MATH 110; but she will know it when she sees it.
SLOs are used in assessment to measure how well students are learning. SLOs must be assessable, and describe observable skills. When writing SLOs, it is helpful to keep in mind the kind of assignments that might help us determine what a student knows or can do. If we cannot identify a realistic way for students to demonstrate an SLO, we cannot really assess it.

As far as possible, SLOs summarize knowledge, skills or abilities. SLOs should not be too numerous. SLOs should break down the knowledge, skills, and abilities acquired in a course of study – but not too far. Most courses, programs and services can be usefully summarized in 2-4 outcomes.

NOTE: Some do require more outcomes, either because the course simply contains a lot of distinct elements, or because the SLOs need to conform to some external guidelines. Summarize wherever possible.

Courses and services support program and institutional outcomes; their learning outcomes represent milestones on a student’s journey. Outcomes are mapped. When writing outcomes, consider the context. If a course is going to be included in a degree or certificate program, at least one of its outcomes should support at least one of the program’s outcomes. All courses and services should also help students reach larger general education and/or institutional outcomes.

 What do SLOs look like?

Elements: SLOs tend to be simple, declarative sentences built around key elements.
  • SWBAT: Outcomes complete the sentence, “Upon successful completion of this degree (or course, or service interaction), students will be able to….” In other words, the SLOs establish what students should take away from the course, program, or service interaction.
  • Carefully chosen verb: When describing what students will know or be able to do, the choice of verb matters, especially for instructional outcomes. The verb helps to signal what sort of goals the course or program serves.

Bloom's Taxonomy: A widely-used resource for writing SLOs is Bloom's Taxonomy of cognitive skills, which assigns specific verbs to various levels of cognitive challenge. For example, courses that ask students to remember information might have learning outcomes that ask students to "describe" or "identify;" courses that develop critical thinking should have learning outcomes that ask students to "analyze" or "evaluate," etc.

Level Definition Verbs: Student will demonstrate an ability to
Creating Creating new ideas, methods, arguments, or propositions; synthesizing ideas to form new ones create, hypothesize, construct, present, deduce, compose, formulate, solve, argue for, develop, conclude, make
Evaluating Evaluating the merit of ideas, methods, arguments or information using specific, relevant criteria assess, evaluate, appraise, recommend, conclude, summarize, explain, value, prioritize, judge, dispute, argue
Analyzing Breaking down ideas, arguments or information into component parts so as to better understand it analyze, deconstruct, explain, examine, solve, resolve, classify, contrast, diagram, break down, distinguish, identify, infer
Applying Ability to apply knowledge and understanding apply, construct, infer, show, relate, predict, solve, use, discover, modify
Understanding Ability to demonstrate knowledge and independent grasp of ideas or information interpret, understand, know, explain, distinguish, infer, translate, paraphrase, give examples, estimate
Remembering Retention of ideas or information describe, identify, know, label, outline, state, define, recognize, summarize

How many SLOs should a course or program have?  Three or four is pretty typical - but there is no "right number" of outcomes.

Try to describe the learning goals of your course, program, or service interaction in as few distinct, declarative statements as will present a reasonably comprehensive overview. If your course has only one outcome, you are probably overgeneralizing. If your course has eight or nine outcomes, you are probably being too specific. 

A few things to bear in mind: 
  • Outcomes should express the main learning goals of the course or program. Any assessment activity you engage in should align with at least one of your course or program outcomes. 
  • Outcomes should summarize the main learning goals of the course. Outcomes do not need to include every skill or piece of knowledge required to pass the course.
  • Outcomes are often used by other institutions to gauge articulation, so in some disciplines, C-ID descriptors will likely dictate the detail required in SLOs.

Here are some examples: 

ADMJ 120 Criminal Investigation
Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:
  • Discuss the process of criminal investigation from first response to trial preparation, including the roles and responsibilities of key personnel
  • Discuss the importance of evidence, including proper collection, handling and examination, to a criminal investigation
  • Identify ethical issues relating to criminal investigation
  • Examine the legalities and strategies of interview and interrogation
DENT 701 Dental Science I
Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:
  • Define & label the landmarks of the face and oral cavity
  • Describe the processes of Oral Embryology & Oral Histology
  • Identify the causes of periodontal disease and its progressive process
  • Identify the causes of dental caries and the caries process
  • Demonstrate why nutrition is an important part of oral hygiene
  • Identify the importance of, causes of, and conditions of oral pathology
BIOL 126 Teaching Science I
Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:
  • Describe California Department of Education and Common Core standards in science for elementary school (grades K-5), with specific examples in one grade
  • Explain how to approach designing a classroom science lesson for elementary school
  • Describe classroom behavior and expectations for elementary school science classes
ETHN 105 African American History and Culture
Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:
  • Summarize the history and culture of West Africa, the African Diaspora and the Atlantic slave trade
  • Describe the political, economic, social, and cultural factors shaping the African American experience in the United States
  • Outline the political, economic, social, and cultural contributions of African Americans to the history and culture of the United States

 What is Mapping?

Course and service learning outcomes are not stand-alone goals. They are milestones in a student’s journey towards a larger goal: a degree or certificate, or completion of a general education pattern. As you create new learning outcomes for a course or service, consider:

  • If the course is included in a degree or certificate program, it should have at least one outcome that supports at least one outcome for the program (otherwise, what is it doing in the program?)
  • If the course is part of a general education pattern, it should have at least one outcome that supports at least one of the institutional outcomes (which include the general education outcomes)
  • Service interactions that have learning outcomes should support at least one of the institutional outcomes. 

Mapping outcomes – that is, identifying how each course or service supports program and/or institutional learning outcomes – serves two purposes. It helps to promote curricular coherence in degree and certificate programs, and to develop interdisciplinary reinforcement of the core competencies outlined in the Institutional Learning Outcomes.

Course-to-program mapping

When a course is included in a degree or certificate program, whether as a requirement or elective, it should help students achieve the program learning outcomes (PLOs). Therefore, at least one course outcome should directly support at least one of the PLOs.

A full map of the SLOs should clarify the specific contribution of each course to the overall program.

Red flags: Any of the following might trigger a curriculum revision or review:

  • Courses that do not have outcomes aligning with any of the program outcomes
  • Program outcomes that are not supported by any courses
  • Course or program outcomes that no longer satisfactorily describe what students do or should learn.

Here is an example of part of the grid for the English AA-T degree, showing which course outcomes support which program outcomes.


  • Only the most relevant SLOs are linked (ENGL 110, for instance, has two other outcomes that are not included in the map).
  • Almost all programs include courses from other disciplines (the English degree includes courses from Chinese, Spanish, Business, and Communication Studies). These too need to be mapped.
ENGL AA-T PLO 1: Analyze and respond critically to literary and expositive texts PLO 2: Demonstrate knowledge of a variety of authors, literary genres, and literary devices
ENGL 110 A. Apply critical thinking and reading skills to literary works, from a variety of genres, in order to analyze and interpret them. B. Write fluent essays that explain and defend these analyses and interpretations, rather than merely present summaries.
ENGL 165 A. Apply critical thinking and reading skills to arguments presented in a variety of forms, in order to analyze and evaluate them. B. Write fluent essays that demonstrate an understanding of the different positions in a complex argument, and that present an effective, nuanced, logically based discussion
ENGL 161 C. Critique their own work and works of their peers with regard to elements of poetry and fiction.

A. Identify, integrate and use specific elements of poetry to create poems of varying form and subject matter.

B. Identify, understand and use specific elements of fiction to create short stories.
All LIT Classes B. Present a critical, independent analysis of themes in one or more twentieth century works in the form of a project, paper, or presentation. A. Demonstrate familiarity with a variety of representative works from canonical writers of the twentieth century, identifying major literary, cultural, and historical themes.
BUS. 401   C. Identify, explain and develop communication skills and tools that contribute to effective verbal and written communication.
CHIN 111 C. Comprehend simple reading texts on personal and social matters based on the vocabulary, grammar and syntax studied.

E. Understand common Chinese cultural aspects, such as greeting styles, lunar calendar, festivals, and social manners.

Course-to-institutional outcomes mapping

In 2017, CSM's Academic Senate adopted a set of institutional learning outcomes (ILOs)– knowledge, skills, and abilities that students should take away from a sustained engagement with the college. The first outcome (Independent Learning and Development) addresses planning, study and self-help skills for college students. The remaining five outcomes specifically address general education competencies (Effective Communication, Critical Thinking, Quantitative Reasoning, Social Awareness and Diversity, and Ethical Responsibility and Effective Citizenship).

Every course and service should have at least one outcome that supports at least one of the institutional outcomes.

Courses that satisfy general education requirements should support at least one of the five outcomes defining general education competencies.

ACTG 131 - Managerial Accounting Ind Learning Effective Comm Quant Reasoning Critical Thinking Soc Aware/Diversity Ethical/Effective Citizenship
Define commonly used terminology X X        
Describe how managers use managerial accounting information to make decisions X   X X    
Perform time value of money analysis using discounted cash flow model X   X X    
Identify and analyze ethical standards issued by professional organizations X X     X X

A word on sequenced courses: For a course that prepares students for future courses (for example, basic skills, developmental or pre-requisite courses), the course SLOs should be distinct from, and clearly related to, SLOs of subsequent courses.  A full map of the SLOs should clarify the specific contribution of each course to preparing the student for subsequent work.

What is the point of mapping?
A regular review of a course-to-program outcomes map is an effective tool for ensuring the health of the program.

  • It promotes curricular cohesion, thus smoothing the student’s path to degree completion. If a course does not contribute to program outcomes, either it does not belong in the program, or the program learning goals need to be revised.
  • It helps ensure the curriculum's currency by giving faculty a chance to review the content of the program. This is especially useful for courses outside the discipline, which may have been revised or banked by those discipline faculty and no longer serve the program goals. It also gives faculty a chance to redefine or reprioritize program outcomes: perhaps the learning goals of the degree or certificate have evolved?
  • It helps ensure that the curriculum is complete. If a program outcome is not supported by any course outcomes, either the program outcome should be eliminated, or the SLO language (or curricular content) of the course needs to be revised to support it.
  • It helps faculty communicate the nature and goals of the program to students. A map is always easier to follow when you can see exactly where you are, where you are going, and how you will get there.

Course-to-institutional outcomes mapping helps provide focal points for faculty collaboration over institutional assessments.


Ideally, a course-to-program map helps communicate the goals of the degree or certificate to outside audiences, notably students. But this can present challenges that may or may not be resolvable.

  • Holistic relevance: What to do with courses whose inclusion in a program is part of what we might call the “dark matter” of the degree – the non-assessable mental habits or abilities that are seeded in a college education, but don’t necessarily bear immediate fruit?

    Example: The ENGL AA-T, like most English degree programs, includes some foreign language study. Part of a literary education involves a sharpened awareness of language and the relationship of language to culture and meaning – a life-long outcome that is probably impossible to assess and unlikely to be performance-ready in the years students are with us.

    However, foreign language course outcomes tend to be quite technical, describing specific knowledge, and a student may not see the connection to program outcomes.

    Should the program outcomes be revised to clarify the role of foreign language study in the English curriculum? Should the course be dropped? Or do the faculty need to make the connection explicit at all? This is a faculty decision.

  • Technical relevance: In some disciplines (especially math or science), courses are included whose outcomes do contribute to program outcomes – but in a way that requires considerable content knowledge to understand.  

    Is it helpful, or even possible, for program outcomes to spell out every bit of knowledge required to achieve them? Or is it better to simply align the outcomes, knowing that students will understand the relationship between them when they get there? Again, this is a faculty decision.

What is the difference between SLOs and Service Area Outcomes?

An outcome creates a standard by which you can evaluate the success or efficacy of your service.

If students should leave knowing something, a student learning outcome (SLO) is appropriate. If students should leave being able to do something, or having received some sort of service, a service area outcome (SAO) is more appropriate.

SLOs = Student learning outcomes. A learning outcome describes the knowledge, skills, or abilities students should take away with them as a result of an interaction with the college (a course, program, transfer or general education pattern, workshop, or use of a service or center).

Where faculty or staff are imparting information, and where the success of the activity rests on whether or not students retain the information, an SLO is appropriate. Examples:

  • A workshop on instructional material (i.e., grammar, math etc.)
  • An orientation to communicate the resources of a center
  • A workshop to inform students about financial aid, campus resources, etc.

Methods typically include exit quizzes, surveys, etc.

Where a student support service offers instructional courses (e.g., Counseling), the course SLOs are assessed like any other instructional course.

SAOs = Service area outcomes. Service area outcomes describe not so much what students have learned, but what students have been able to do as the result of an interaction with the college. Examples:

  • Complete an application or form
  • Get access to a health or wellness counselor
  • Complete their registration entirely online
Here is a side-by-side comparison:
Question: Did this service succeed? = Did students learn something? Question: Did this service succeed? = Were students able to get something done?
  • New F-1 students will be apprised and knowledgeable about educational counseling and course selection after the workshop
  • Students will know about center resources
  • Students completed their registration online
  • 90% of GI Bill-eligible veterans will apply for financial aid through FAFSA

What is the difference between SLOs and 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 form the framework by which we assess the health of courses, programs and services.

Some useful ways to distinguish between the two:

  • Don’t distinguish. In many of our course outlines, the language for "Course Objectives" and "Learning Outcomes" is identical.
  • Use the SLOs to summarize course objectives. Many courses use the SLOs to create a clear and simple summary of specific course objectives. For example, BIOL 110 has an SLO that students can "explain the principles of evolution that underlie all of biology" which can be broken down into several 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 already planned.

Where are current learning outcomes published?

Developing good outcomes for your course, program, or service 

Writing learning outcomes can be a very clarifying process. It involves thinking hard about the goals of a course, program, or service, and its relationship to other educational offerings and experiences. Here are some useful things to ask yourself:

1. In brief: What do you want students to take away with them? Break the course/program/service learning goals into a few clear, summative statements. 

  • Appropriately generalized: Outcomes don't need to sum up all the grounds students will cover; they should summarize where students end up. You can include details in the "Course Objectives."  
  • Not too numerous or repetitive: Does your course or program have more than four outcomes? Make sure that the outcomes really describe distinct learning goals. If they do not, boil them down into a single statement. The goal is to summarize the course or program goals in as few outcomes as possible, while still preserving a useful breakdown of its knowledge, skills, and abilities. (NOTE: In some cases, courses just need to have a lot of outcomes, usually to conform to C-ID descriptors or other articulation issues). 
  • Introduced with a verb reflecting the appropriate cognitive challenge:  Outcomes should signal the sort of learning involved (use Bloom's Taxonomy - click for an example).  

2. Where does this course or service fit on the student’s overall journey? Course outcomes learning must be clearly linked to degree, certificate, and/or institutional learning outcomes; service outcomes must support relevant institutional learning outcomes. Think about:

  • The course's role in a degree/certificate: If the course is part of a degree or certificate program, make sure that at least one of the course outcomes clearly supports at least one of the program outcomes.
  • The course or service's role in supporting general education: All course and service outcomes should support at least one of the Institutional Learning Outcomes
Examples - Here are a couple of (fictional!) course examples.

Children’s Literature: Student Learning Outcomes

Successful students will be able to:

  1. Identify and analyze perennial themes in children’s literature, including abandonment, dealing with grief, powerlessness, identity, death, and safety.
  2. Compare and contrast children’s literature from different cultures.
  3. Analyze the influence of gender relations and socio-economic status on children’s literature from different cultures.
  4. Analyze the way children's literature reflects social pressures and movements.
  5. Identify and evaluate important themes in children’s literature today, and analyze what these themes tell us about our society.

SLO 1: No need to detail all the themes - besides, students/teacher might find new ones!

SLOs 2, 3 and 4: These basically say the same thing (children's lit as cultural barometer). Maybe revise?

SLO 5: This sounds more like an assignment that would SLOs 3 or 4. 

Suggested revision:

Students will be able to:

  1. Identify and analyze perennial themes in children’s literature.
  2. Analyze how children's literature reflects and comments on issues in culture and society.

Not perfect, but at least a bit clearer?

Science in Society: Student Learning Outcomes

Successful students will be able to:

  1. Describe the history of science, including identifying key figures, movements, and events.
  2. Describe the contributions from around the world to scientific development. 
  3. Describe the scientific method and explain its importance in scientific thought.
  4. Explain the protocol for studies and its importance.
  5. Describe different scientific fields (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.)
  6. Critically evaluate different scientific claims.
  7. Identify flaws and fraudulence in scientific claims.
  8. Analyze critiques of science (e.g., anti-vaccination, skepticism of climate change, etc.) and evaluate claims.
  9. Discuss the origin of scientific backlash.

Wait - nine outcomes? Let's take a look.

SLO 1: Again - "history" implies key figures, movements and events. 

SLO 2: Implied in SLO 1, surely?

SLO 3, 4: Same idea, isn't it?

SLO 5: Content makes sense, though does one describe these fields?

SLOs 6, 7, 8, 9: These sound like different versions of one big idea. 

Suggested revision:

Successful students will be able to:

  1. Describe the global history of science.
  2. Describe the scientific method, and its importance in scientific thought and protocol.
  3. Evaluate scientific claims, and distinguish them from pseudo-scientific claims.
  4. Discuss the origin of scientific backlash.

At least it's briefer. Italicized phrases indicate another SLO embedded or merged into one.

SLO 3 is more than a rephrasing. Here, the detail will be captured in the Course Content or Course Objectives.

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