Articulate Expectations for Student Learning

What do you expect students to learn?

Make your goals for learning clear with PLOs


Effective Program Learning Outcomes: 

  • Describe the behaviors, performances, and / or habits of mind that you expect students to display.
  • Focus on what students will do (rather than what the program includes). Think: learning-centered vs. coverage-centered.

Assessment Cycle Image - prepareDefined by faculty, program learning goals express the broad disciplinary competencies that students are expected to have mastered by graduation; they express the intended results of an academic program. As Anderson, Krathwohl, Airasian, Cruikshank, Mayer, Pintrich, Raths, & Wittrock (2001) point out, faculty expectations about students and student learning inform every instructional act. A commitment to educational equity requires that we bring those implicit expectations to an explicit, transparent level. 

As disciplinary experts, faculty exhibit “unconscious competence, in which [they] exercise the skills and knowledge in their domain so automatically and instinctively that they are no longer consciously aware of what they know or do” (Ambrose et al, 2010, p. 97). That mastery of disciplinary knowledge, skills, and dispositions can create an unintended obstacle for students. We wouldn't want to leave something as important as student learning and success to guesswork. The process of developing learning outcomes invites faculty to reflect on, and then translate, their embodied disciplinary knowledge into clear expectations for students in their majors. Effective learning outcomes statements identify the knowledge, skills, and dispositions which indicate mastery.

points along the continuum between novice and master

Program Learning Outcomes 

Program learning outcomes (PLOs) "refer to the end rather than the means, the result rather than the process" (Suskie, 2018, p. 41). Effective PLOs are realistic and transparent. They distinguish a program from others on campus.

“Program goals are broad statements concerning knowledge, skills, or values that faculty expect graduating students to achieve. They describe general expectations for students, and they should be consistent with the program mission” (Allen, 2004, p. 29)

Are the learning outcomes realistic?

As you craft your LOs, strive for alignment--balance between your highest aspirations for your students (e.g., students will display high-order cognitive skills) with achievability within the context. 

Ambrose et al (2010) “define learning as a process that [facilitates] change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning” (p. 3, emphasis in original). Learning takes time. The primary take-away here is: be realistic about what is actually possible for most learners in ten weeks. This is not a recommendation to lower your expectations! Set high goals for your students. Just make sure they are also achievable.

Are the learning outcomes transparent?

What does "understanding" look like? How do we know if a student "knows" something? What does "think critically" or "communicate effectively" look or sound like?   

Effective learning outcomes statements clarify expectations through precise word choice. To increase transparency, use language which highlights the observable behaviors or skills students will display (e.g., evaluate, critique, produce, design). A handy resource for effectively describing your expectations for student learning is the adapted Taxonomy of Cognitive Process Dimensions.  

Do the learning outcomes distinguish the program from others?

"Learning goals are promises. We are promising our students, their families, employers, and society that students who successfully a course, program, general education curriculum, or other learning experience can do the things we promise in our learning goals" (Suskie, 2018, p. 158).

The UC Davis Campus Goals for Undergraduate Learning express our broadest expectations for student learning. Program learning outcomes statements represent the focused and disciplinary-specific knowledge and behavior expected of students matriculating from an individual program or major. As such, the PLOs distinguish one undergraduate major from another.