DePaul University Center for Teaching & Learning > Assessment > Learning Outcomes > Creating Outcomes

Creating Student Learning Outcomes

Creating Learning Outcomes for Academic Programs

The first step for academic units to conduct effective assessment of student learning is for their faculty to develop a shared understanding of the knowledge and skills that their graduates should be able to demonstrate as a result of their course of study. This is where program learning outcomes come in.

What are program learning outcomes?

Program learning outcomes broadly describe the learning that will take place across the curriculum through concise statements, made in specific and measurable terms, of what students will know and/or be able to do as the result of having successfully completed a program of study.

Students will be able to:

  • Discuss how the four spheres of the natural world (biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere) are interconnected for a given environmental issue.
  • Demonstrate how humans impact the natural world and how the natural world impacts humans, including in the context of social and environmental justice.
  • Identify and communicate the causes of and solutions to environmental issues from the social science, natural science, and humanities perspectives.
  • Design, conduct, and evaluate environmental research using qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods.

How are learning outcomes different from learning goals?

These two words are often used interchangeably and both are related to the teaching and learning that is expected to take place in the classroom and over the course of a student’s career within a department. However, the difference between goals and outcomes lies in the emphasis on who will be performing the activities. Learning goals generally describe what an instructor or program aims to do; i.e., “The curriculum will introduce students to the major research methods of the discipline.” Whereas, a learning outcome describes in observable and measurable terms what a student is able to do as a result of completing a course or program; i.e., “At the completion of this program students will be able to explain the differences between research methods and identify strengths and limitations of various research designs.” The creation of effective learning outcomes focuses on the student and what he or she can do, not on what the instructor has taught.

Visit DePaul’s Teaching Commons for more information on Course Objectives and Learning Outcomes.

Generating Learning Outcomes

Writing learning outcomes should be a reflective, faculty-guided process as the members of the program best understand their discipline and their expectations of their majors. Many units find the following steps to be helpful as they begin the process of creating learning outcomes for their majors.

  1. Reflect with other faculty (and whenever possible alumni and students) on the question: What it is that graduates should know or be able to do with a degree in your discipline?
  2. Refer to resources from your discipline, department, college, and the university about expectations of graduates. Disciplinary associations often have websites and publications that provide useful assessment materials. Institutional expectations of DePaul students are reflected in our Pillars of Learning, as well as university missions, and vision statements.
  3. Draft learning outcomes in student-centered language. Begin each one with “Students will be able to…” and choose action verbs that can be observed and measured. We have handouts to assist you in choosing action verbs (short list here and longer list here).
  4. Group outcomes in broad categories based on similarity to determine if one outcome can take the place of several:
    • “Students will be able to design and conduct experiments to address questions germane to the discipline.”
    • “Students will be able to design and administer surveys that address questions appropriate to the discipline.”
    • “Students will be able to conduct interviews and focus groups that address questions relevant to the discipline.”

    In this case if the ability to design and execute research within the discipline is a valued skill for graduates to have, it may be more appropriate to rephrase the outcome as:

    “Students will be able to design and execute research plans using the major methodologies of the discipline (experiments, surveys, qualitative techniques, etc.) to answer disciplinary specific questions.”

  5. Share a draft or learning outcomes with other stakeholders to be certain that the most significant learning is captured in the outcomes and that the language is written in such a way that it is understandable to those who do not have a background in the field (advisors, potential students and their parents, employers).
  6. Periodically review your program learning outcomes to ensure that they reflect any curricular revisions and innovations, and that they adhere to the standards of quality described below.

Evaluating Learning Outcomes

When your unit is reviewing or revising its current learning outcomes there are several characteristics to look for:

  1. Learning outcomes are student-centered in that they focus on the knowledge and skills that students can demonstrate (not on what instructors or curriculum aim to teach students).
  2. The learning described in department -and program-level outcomes should encompass the essential and significant knowledge and skills expected of a program of study, generally near the completion of their course of study.
  3. Generally outcomes are short; usually one sentence in length that clearly states the behaviors that students should be able to demonstrate. Outcomes focus on the action that signifies student learning by using concrete, measurable verbs (i.e., action verbs).
  4. The total number of learning outcomes will vary by program, usually between 4 and 7, and generally not more than ten.
  5. The learning outcomes of a given program sufficiently distinguish the program from adjacent programs. For example, a unit offering a BA and a BS in the same subject area (e.g., Environmental Studies) must not use identical learning outcomes for the two programs. Similarly, if a unit offers both a BA and a MA in the same area (e.g., Public Relations & Advertising) the learning outcomes across programs may have similar themes, but must reflect different levels of study.

The Center for Teaching & Learning offers this learning outcomes checklist as a guide to evaluating existing learning outcomes. Further, the assessment leadership team is available to consult with units and individual faculty members on learning outcomes construction and revision.

Other Benefits to Program Learning Outcomes

As mentioned, identifying the most important things students should learn within their programs is the first step in deciding what should be assessed, but learning outcomes have other uses as well. They:

  • Require units to think intentionally about their curricula and course offerings, identifying areas within programs where outcomes overlap (or are otherwise redundant) or where gaps exist.
  • Help units communicate expectations to students about what knowledge, skills and abilities they are expected to have mastered at the end of their course of study .
  • Provide students with a way to articulate the knowledge and abilities that they have gained and to express what they know to others.
  • Inform potential employers of the abilities of a program’s graduates.