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Wilfrid Laurier University Leaf
June 28, 2017
Canadian Excellence

Learning Outcomes

One of the most significant changes to the Laurier’s revised (2011) Institutional Quality Assurance Procedures (IQAP) is the focus on program-level learning outcomes. The articulation of learning outcomes at the program level has now been integrated into the new program development, curriculum change and the cyclical review processes at Laurier. The centrality of learning outcomes within these templates and processes reflects a provincial, national, and even global movement in higher education towards outcomes-based curriculum development and assessment.

A program-level learning outcome can be defined as a statement that articulates what a graduate of the program should be able to know and/or do upon completion of their degree. The terms outcome and objective are often used interchangeably, but each term implies a different level of measurability and specificity. An objective, whether course- or program–based, is usually more general and broad than an outcome and can be compared to a goal or an aim.  Objectives are often phrased from the perspective of what a course or program will do, rather than what a student should be able to demonstrate.

By contrast, learning outcomes are often written from the perspective of what the student will be able to know or do, rather than what the instructor or course will do to them. The SMART acronym is often referenced or used as a framework for writing learning outcomes. SMART stands for Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. These criteria can be useful to keep in mind when distinguishing between program goals or objectives and student learning outcomes.

The following illustrates the difference between a more general program objective and a student-focused learning outcome.

Program Objective: “This program will expose students to the research methodologies of the discipline.”

Student Learning Outcome: “Students will be able to select and apply an appropriate qualitative or quantitative methodology to a research problem or question.”

The first statement does articulate a program goal, but it is vague and would be difficult to assess. The second statement is much clearer about what the intended outcome is and how a student might demonstrate that this outcome had been achieved through an embedded program assessment.

Calls for academic units to apply a learning outcomes-based framework to curriculum design and modification in order to respond to both internal and external shifts in the higher education environment are not designed to limit or attempt to quantify every aspect of students’ university experience. It is well recognized that some of the most important and valuable shifts in students’ intellectual and character development may not be directly measureable. However, just because not all aspects of a students’ university education are quantifiable doesn’t mean that some elements of the student experience should not be examined and assessed in order to determine whether or not the programs goals are being met and students are graduating with the intended knowledge and skills from their program of study. In essence, this is what the articulation and assessment of program learning outcomes is about: a planning and alignment exercise designed to ensure that students have the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills progressively across the curriculum and that the academic unit has some evidence to determine whether its goals are being achieved.

Facilitators from the Centre for Teaching Innovation and Excellence are happy to schedule consultations or workshops with units to assist in the development, alignment and/or assessment of program learning outcomes. Oftentimes, having someone from outside the unit with a fresh set of eyes and experience in facilitating these discussions can provide a useful perspective on the process. 

The movement towards an outcomes-based approach to program development and review has numerous potential benefits for students, academic units, and the institution as a whole. Developing a set of program learning outcomes can lead to the design or re-design of a curriculum that supports the progressive development and achievement of the learning outcomes as the student moves through the program. Evaluating the achievement of program outcomes can prompt reflective dialogue amongst faculty about what is working well within the curriculum, as well as provide guidance and evidence for where changes may be necessary. Learning outcomes can be used to attract students to the program insofar as they make transparent what knowledge or skills students can expect to graduate with as well as what makes the program unique from its comparators. Lastly, an institution that prioritizes and makes public the learning outcomes for its academic programs makes a statement about its commitment to the quality of the educational experiences that it offers and the planning and design that goes into its curriculum development and review processes.

For more information or resources about learning outcomes at the course or program level, or to arrange for a consultation or workshop, feel free to contact Sally Heath or Jeanette McDonald. 

Learning Outcomes Resources

Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations
This document outlines the provincially established Degree Level Expectations (UDLEs) for undergraduate programs.

Graduate Degree Level Expectations
This document outlines the provincially established Degree Level Expectations (GDLEs) for graduate programs.

University Program Learning Outcomes Directory
The University of Ottawa has put together a repository of program-level learning outcomes that is searchable by program name or degree level.  This database may be useful for units working on creating learning outcomes for their own program.

McMaster University's Ontario's Degree Level Expectations Website
McMaster University has created a website that houses information related to how the OCAV Undergraduate and Graduate Degree Level Expectations (UDLEs and GDLEs) have been adapted and put to use across several Ontario universities.

A Guide to Developing and Assessing Learning Outcomes at the University of Guelph
The University of Guelph has prepared an excellent guide on the development and assessment of program-level learning outcomes.