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Program Goals vs. Student Learning Outcomes [CONCEPTS]

August 29, 2010
Classroom Chairs 2

Photo by James Sarmiento on Flickr.

Assessment of student learning can be conducted for a variety of reasons. Though we most frequently think of coursework like tests and papers as the main means of assessing learning, programs also must assess how well their entire program of study is equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need for success.

These two types of assessment should be done in parallel to examine the effectiveness of instruction in courses and in programs. But faculty should be careful when planning assessment – as in the writing of an assessment plan (SOAP) at Fresno State – to distinguish between student learning outcomes and goals for program enhancement.

In its summer 2010 review of undergraduate assessment activity at Fresno State, the Learning Assessment Team found that in SOAPs and their reports on assessment, many programs appeared to combine their desired student learning outcomes with the goals sought for the entire program’s structure and resources.

For example, some programs noted that some of their desired “outcomes” were to acquire more laboratory space, secure more funding for student research, hire additional faculty, or add another course. While all of these are worthy aspirations, they are program goals rather than student learning outcomes. These are goals that the program has for its own facilities, faculty, structure or funding. Although each of these goals might have an impact on student learning in some way, they are not items that identify specific knowledge or skills that students should achieve while in the program, as do student learning outcomes.

Assessment of student learning may lead to the identification of program weaknesses that could possibly be addressed by structural or resource changes. Students’ difficulty accomplishing the learning outcomes of an advanced course may lead to the addition of an intermediate course in the program, for example. However, the goal of adding that course is not a student learning outcome. It’s a program goal.


Photo by Olle Svenson on Flickr.

When writing assessment plans and student learning outcomes, then, it’s important to distinguish which items are goals for the program to achieve, distinct from items that will produce evidence of student learning. Keeping in mind that student learning outcomes must be clearly stated and measurable, ask whether a specific item can be assessed in a way that provides evidence of student learning. Can the presence of an additional faculty member be assessed to show learning? Not exactly – which again shows how this is a program goal, not a learning outcome.

Though these distinctions may seem overly detailed and unnecessary, ensuring that the distinction is made ultimately makes it easier to write assessment plans that are clear and manageable. Preventing conundrums like how to assess the existence of a faculty member only makes your job of assessment easier in the long run.

What is the role of programmatic goals vs. student learning outcomes in your program’s assessment process? Add your thoughts and questions in the Comments below.

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