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What are Department Outcomes & Why Do They Matter

In their simplest, most basic definition learning outcomes are the knowledge and skills students should acquire and be able to perform by the end of a course of studies. Although most educators agree on the general concept of the learning outcomes, the actual wording, implementation, and even the pedagogical thought behind them vary broadly. Some institutions of higher learning might follow state formulated learning outcomes, while others might modify them, at some institutions individual departments might collaborate and or give individual faculty members the freedom to formulate their own learning outcomes.

Why do student learning outcomes (SLO's) matter so much? Dobbins, Brooks, Scott, Rawlinson, & Norman in “Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: the academic’s perspective” (2016) identify the following value of the learning outcomes:

  1. SLO’s can provide a direction for a course and its curriculum. For example, if one of the learning outcomes for an ENGL 1301 course states: “Students will use standard edited English in academic writings,” an instructor will need to include somewhere in the course the information on what is considered standard edited English and some instruction on English grammar and mechanics.
  2. SLO’s can communicate clearly to the students and the instructors what is expected of both parties in the course: Am I learning what I am supposed to be learning in this course? Am I teaching what I am supposed to be teaching? The above example learning outcome communicates to the students a clear expectation of their use of Standard English and that they will have to produce a number of academic writings.
  3. SLO’s help determine the types of assignments and assessments for the course. The same learning outcome mentioned earlier will determine some of the assessments in this course. An instructor will need to evaluate students’ mastery.

From my professional experience, learning outcomes have another benefit: they create a baseline for data collection and for the evaluation of the effectiveness of instruction and the quality of learning. In our modern-day focus on data, qualitative analysis, and proof of instructional effectiveness, many institutions or departments look for accurate, meaningful data on student learning and student success to further drive the course and program improvements.

One of the greatest benefits of having departmental learning outcomes and regularly assessing students’ mastery is an opportunity to start a dialogue about the course curriculum, instructional strategies, assessments, and general standards for the course.  A meaningful approach to the assessment of learning outcomes and data analysis should include:

  • Identify which learning outcome(s) will be assessed in an assessment cycle. Most courses have 5 or more learning outcomes, and these learning outcomes can be quite wordy and complex looking at multiple major course concepts and/or skills. Evaluating every one of the learning outcomes would be extremely time-consuming and unproductive. Instead, one to three learning outcomes should be selected and assessed in one assessment cycle.
  • Review the selected learning outcomes for clarity and measurability. Interpret, re-write, break down the LO into smaller, more manageable parts. For example, if a learning outcome is “Students will understand and use vocabulary in reading, writing, and oral communications,” the faculty or a team developing assessment will need to break the LO into several parts to assess the “understanding” part and the “use” part in all three situations. Bloom’s taxonomy can help.
  • Determine what type of assessment will be more accurate and will provide a good picture of students’ learning. Using the vocabulary learning outcome as an example, faculty might have to develop a separate assessment for the “oral communications” part of the LO.
  • Create all necessary documents:
    • The assessment with the answer key.
    • Practice is especially important if the assessment will carry some weight and will impact students’ averages. For example, a common final assessment can weigh between 10% and 20% of the course average.
    • Data collection spreadsheet with data collection guidelines. Consider including quantitative and qualitative criteria. In other words, not only ask how many students demonstrated 80% mastery of the learning outcome but also seek instructors’ feedback on why students were/were not successful, what trends the instructors noticed. Seek instructors’ feedback and comments on the assessment tool, the data, and the actual assessment process.
    • Communication e-mail with specific details about the assessment, the process, logistics, deadlines, and rationale for the assessment. The rationale for the assessment cannot be underestimated. In order for the departmental learning outcomes to work and in order for the assessment of these learning outcomes to be meaningful and impactful, there needs to be a buy-in from all faculty in the department and support from the department and division leadership.
  • Administer the learning outcomes assessment and collect the data.
  • Analyze the data. When a team of faculty looks at the data, they should look at the numbers, of course. But also, make sure to review the faculty comments and take those comments into account when considering future revisions and further steps in the process. Some of the most common findings we had over the years are:
    • A low percentage of students demonstrated mastery of the learning outcome.
    • Almost all students demonstrated mastery of the learning outcome.
    • Faculty commented that the assessment instrument was flawed.
    • Faculty commented that they had an unusually high number of non-native speakers who struggled with a particular learning outcome.
    • Faculty commented that poor attendance hindered some students’ mastery of the LO.
    • To avoid using common assessment of the learning outcomes as a punitive tool, data analysis should always be done on the aggregate data of the entire department without singling out any individual instructors.
  • Act on the data analysis. At the same data analysis session, the team should come up with suggestions or action items based on the findings and faculty feedback. Some of the action items we had over the years were:
    • Revise the assessment instrument.
    • Offer professional development for faculty on effective pedagogy and teaching methodology for a specific LO.
    • Develop a bank of class activities and assignments to teach a specific LO more effectively.
    • Develop interventions to address issues like attendance, students’ lack of materials, test-taking strategies, etc…
  • Repeat the cycle and compare the results. 

Dobbins, K., Brooks, S., Scott, J. J. A., Rawlinson, M., & Norman, R., I. (2016). Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: the academic’s perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 41(7), 1217-1235. 

About the Author

Dr. Anna Schmidt is a professor and a department chair of Transitional (Developmental) English at Lone Star College – CyFair. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies from Graceland University, IA. Her second Bachelor of Arts degree and her Master of Arts degrees in English as well as her Ph.D. in Education are from State Universities in Russia. Her doctoral dissertation focused on differentiated curriculum and instruction in the Higher Education in the US. A native of Russia, Dr. Schmidt came to the United States in 1994 on a Fulbright scholarship as a visiting professor at Graceland University, IA. After moving to Houston in 1998, Dr. Schmidt worked as a senior English teacher in Katy ISD and also taught composition and literature courses as an adjunct at Houston Community College. In 2003 she joined Lone Star College-CyFair as a founding faculty. In 15 years at LSC-CyFair, Dr. Schmidt has served as a lead faculty, a department chair, and a CARE Academy Faculty Fellow facilitating a partnership with Cy-Fair ISD.

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