Writing PSLOs & Examples

Program-level learning outcomes are clear statements that describe the competencies that students should possess upon completion of a program (Anderson et al., 2001; Harden, 2002; Kennedy, 2007; Simon & Taylor, 2009). At Brockport, program-level learning outcomes are written for each Undergraduate, Graduate, and Doctoral program. Writing and refining learning outcomes at the program level is a faculty-led and collaborative process and should include opportunities for all faculty members to be involved. (adapted with permission from: Centre for Teaching and Learning, Western University. (2022). Curriculum Planning.)

Program level student learning outcomes should be informed where appropriate by:

  • the discipline-related skill set
  • accreditation or other external accountability expectations, and
  • program goals

Learning outcomes can 1) communicate instructional intent and expectations to students, 2) increase awareness of learning for students by helping them realize “what” they know, and 3) can assist the advising process or attract students to help them understand “why” they are taking a program (or why they should enroll in it).

Drafting Program Learning Outcome Statements

Learning outcomes complete a phrase describing what students should know, value and/ or be able to do by the end of the program (e.g., “By the end of this program, successful students will be able to…”). After this stem, choose an action verb that specifies the depth of learning expected, followed by a statement describing the knowledge/abilities/attitudes to be demonstrated. Finish the outcome with a statement to provide context within the discipline. (used with permission from: Centre for Teaching and Learning, Western University. (2022). Curriculum Planning.)

Consider “An Expanded Taxonomy of Learning” (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy) or “Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning” for action verbs that might be used.

By the end of this program, successful students will be able to…

action verb
to identify the depth of learning expected (e.g., identify, explain, apply, analyze, evaluate, create).

learning to be demonstrated
statement specifying learning to be demonstrated (e.g., what?)

learning context
statement(s) to give the disciplinary context or state how the learning will be achieved (e.g., about what? why? how?).

(used with permission from: Centre for Teaching and Learning, Western University. (2022). Curriculum Planning.)

action verb

Example 1:

This example is taken from: Program Assessment Handbook, University of Central Florida. (February 2008 edition). Guidelines for Planning and Implementing Quality Enhancing Efforts of Program and Student Learning Outcomes.

Poor: Students completing the undergraduate program in Hypothetical Engineering will have knowledge of engineering principles.

This is a weak statement because it does not specify which engineering principles a graduate from the program should know. Also, it does not define what is meant by “have knowledge”. Are they supposed to be able to simply define the principles, or be able to apply the principles, etc?

Better: Graduates will be competent in the principles of engineering design, formulating requirements and constraints, following an open-ended decision process involving tradeoffs, and completing a design addressing a hypothetical engineering need.

This statement is better because it lists the specific areas in hypothetical engineering that a student must be competent in. However, it is still vague, as the level of competency is not stated. Are they expected to understand these concepts and how will they apply them?

Best: Graduates will be able to apply and demonstrate the principles of engineering design, formulating requirements and constraints, following an open-ended decision process involving tradeoffs, and completing a design addressing a hypothetical engineering need.

This is a much better learning outcome statement for two reasons. First, the specific requirements are listed and second, the level of competency is also stated. A student must be able to apply and to demonstrate the listed engineering principles.

Example 2:

This example is taken from: A Program Guide for Outcomes Assessment, Geneva College. (April, 2000).

Poor: Students should know the historically important systems of psychology.

This is poor because it says neither what systems nor what information about each system students should know. Are they supposed to know everything about them or just names? Should students be able recognize the names, recite the central ideas, or criticize the assumptions?

Better: Students should understand the psychoanalytic, Gestalt, behaviorist, humanistic, and cognitive approaches to psychology.

This is better because it says what theories students should know, but it still does not detail exactly what they should know about each theory, or how deeply they should understand whatever it is they should understand.

Best: Students should be able to recognize and articulate the foundational assumptions, central ideas, and dominant criticisms of the psychoanalytic, Gestalt, behaviorist, humanistic, and cognitive approaches to psychology.

This is the clearest and most specific statement of the three examples. It provides even beginning students an understandable and very specific target to aim for. It provides faculty with a reasonable standard against which they can compare actual student performance.

Program Learning Outcomes should be:

  • Concise, direct, and clearly stated. Terms such as know, understand, learn, appreciate, and be aware of should be avoided, and the specific level of achievement should be clearly identified.
  • Observable and measurable. Learning outcomes must be capable of being assessed, based on clearly defined criteria associated with the teaching/learning activities and assessment strategies contained within the curriculum. It is often helpful to add the preposition “by” or “through” followed by a statement that clearly states how the learning outcome will be assessed.
  • Balanced. If the learning outcome is too broad, it will be difficult to If the learning outcome is long and detailed, it will limit flexibility and adaptability in the curriculum.
  • Grounded within the discipline and consistent with disciplinary language, norms and standards

(used with permission from: Centre for Teaching and Learning, Western University. (2022). Curriculum Planning.)

Refining Program Learning Outcomes

Program learning outcomes should be viewed as living and organic, and the process of collaboratively articulating and clarifying learning outcomes as promoting reflection and informing program delivery and development; they provide the basis for department priorities.

When reviewing and refining program-level learning outcomes, consider the following questions to guide the process:

  1. Do the learning outcomes accurately describe what a graduate should know, value and be able to do upon finishing the program? Do they describe adequately the unique strengths that a graduate of the program should possess? Are there any specific statements that should be added, consolidated and/or removed?
  2. Do the action verbs adequately convey an appropriate level of understanding for each learning outcome?
  3. Are the learning outcomes concise and specific? Are they written from the students’ perspective, focused on what students can expect to achieve if they have learned successfully? Could multiple audiences (e.g., students, instructors, employers, administrators, across institutions) understand the learning outcomes?
    1. If not, how could the clarity of the learning outcome be improved?
  4. Would the disciplinary context of the statement be clear if read in isolation?
    1. If not, what additional detail could be added to provide additional disciplinary context?
  5. Are they specific, observable, and measurable qualities? Could you appropriately assess each outcome?
  6. If not, how should they be revised? What additional detail/ context is required?

(adapted with permission from: Centre for Teaching and Learning, Western University. (2022). Curriculum Planning.)

Exemplary PLOs are stated with clarity and specificity and include precise verbs, rich description of the content, skill, or attitudinal domain in the disciplinary context, and are stated in student-centered terms. (PSU Program Learning Outcome Handbook)

Below are “before and after” examples as suggestions for refining program-level learning outcomes.

Before After

By the end of this program, successful students will be able to:

By the end of this program, successful students will be able to:

Understand how environmental factors impact their choices.

Critically assess the factors influencing physical activity and nutrition (environment, community, habits, lifestyle), and analyze how these factors shape their current choices.

Develop effective communication skills.

Clearly communicate economic arguments in appropriate written, oral, and visual forms with the correct use of supporting evidence (including formulas, figures, and citations).

Demonstrate research methods.

Compare research methods and data analysis used in sociology by (1) identifying the appropriate use of both quantitative methodologies, (2) evaluating different research methods, (3) interpreting the results of data gathering, and (4) identifying the use of appropriate statistical techniques

Create effective media plans.

Create plans that integrate appropriate educational media and technology to enhance student

learning in face-to-face, blended, and fully online methods of delivery.

Students will be provided with research opportunities.

Students will be able to analyze and interpret quantitative psychological data using statistics, graphs, and data tables.

Sources Consulted