Student Learning Outcomes: An Overview

A student stands facing a whiteboard with writing

The term “outcome” is used extensively in the world of business, industry, and medicine. Business and industry set outcome expectations and work to achieve them. The medical field has used an outcomes based model for many years for teaching, testing, and medical practice. The outcomes and outcome-based assessment concept has slowly found its place in education, with institutions, accreditation agencies, and governing agencies demanding clear learning outcome statements and valid measurement of the outcomes. This article presents an overview of student learning outcomes (SLOs).

Student Learning Outcomes

Although we may not state it formally, we all deal with outcomes in our lives every day. If we exceed the road or highway speed limit, the outcome could be a heavy fine, or worse, the outcome could be an accident in which someone is injured. So how did we know what the “expected” outcome was? A sign was posted with the speed limit printed on it with the expectation that it would help ensure driver safety. The speed limit sign was the outcome statement, and it was specific. A broader outcome statement, typically called a Goal, would be “Drive Safely,” and would be open to interpretation, and thus would require additional specific information for clarity. 

When we set goals for ourselves, we are expecting and hoping for a successful outcome. When we set goals for our students, we are expecting and hoping for a successful learning outcome for them. When course instructors determine what learning outcomes they expect students to achieve, they typically express the expectation as what the student “will” or “will be able to” know and do. The goal and outcome statements typically imply that 100% achievement is expected, but we all know that students are going to have degrees of success at attaining the outcomes.

Outcome Levels

At all levels of education, we need to have student learning outcomes that are specific enough to be measurable with some form of assessment. These specific learning outcomes are then what is taught and what we expect students to accomplish. When we state learning outcomes in broad terms, they typically are called Goals, and are not specific enough to be able to write test items for an assessment or to design a rubric around. Breaking the Goals down into sub-goals or General Learning Outcomes (GLOs) as suggested by Carriveau (2016), helps to clarify the intent of the Goal statements. Typically, rubrics used to score written responses and other performance responses use GLO level statements for the expected outcomes for the rows of the rubric.

More specificity is required in order to write selected response test items, such as multiple-choice items, so the GLO level statements are broken down into Specific Learning Outcomes (sLO) statements. The sLO statements can also be the row outcomes on a rubric when only one GLO is being measured. If the test items are already available for the course and are acceptable, then it is possible to create the sLOs to match the items and then code the sLOs to the broader GLO and Goal statements. The three-level outcomes model (Carriveau, 2016) can be constructed from the Goal level down or from the sLO level up.

Other Sources

Measurement and Assessment in Teaching (8th ed.) by Lynn & Grunlund (2000) is an excellent text on the connection of assessment and teaching. Their outcome levels are: Major Categories, General Instructional Objectives, and Specific Learning Outcomes. Their examples for objectives and outcomes in the appendix begin with verbs rather than “the student will.” They use “ability to” in their examples of complex learning outcomes measured by essay questions (p. 240)

The Quality Matters™ (QM) design standards for certification of online and blended courses requires specific level outcome statements for writing assessment items, which they call “Objectives” in their course design model. QM distinguishes between Learning Objective and Learning Outcome as:

  • Learning Objective - “a statement of the specific and measurable knowledge, skills, attributes, and habits learners are expected to achieve..."
  • Learning Outcome - “a demonstration of the actual level of attainment of the knowledge, skills, attributes, and habits expected as a result of the educational experiences” (Quality Matters, p 7).

UNT CLEAR course design specialists use a modified QM form for approving and ensuring quality UNT online courses.

Communicating and Reporting Outcome Attainment

The question you may be asking yourself is what value are the GLOs and Goal statements in the three-level model if what is taught and measured is at the sLO level? The answer is that outcome attainment values calculated on student responses at the sLO level can be averaged and mapped up to GLO and Goal levels, whether from selected response items (like multiple-choice) items or from constructed response items scored with a rubric (e.g. written response).

How well the class did as a whole on the GLO and Goal statements can be used for reporting and communication purposes. The GLO level values may be of interest to Chairs or Deans. The Goal level values may be of interest to directors and administrators responsible for institutional level reports. Of course, the teacher will be primarily concerned with how students did at the sLO level, which is also what the students are interested in. The sLO level results, including specific items, is what should be communicated to students, particularly when the results are from formative assessments.


Carriveau, R.S. (2016). Connecting the Dots, Developing student learning outcomes and outcome based assessments. (2nd ed.) Stylus Publishing, Inc., Sterling, VA.

Linn, R.L. & Gronlund, N.E. (2000). Measurement and assessment in teaching (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Quality Matters (2014). Quality matters higher education rubric workbook (5th ed.) Maryland: Quality Matters.