Guest Contributor: Erin Doppke, Senior Instructional Designer, Cengage Learning Custom Solutions

We all work with specific goals in mind, and teaching and learning are no different. However, sometimes we’re handed specific objectives that we’re required to work toward. That can present the struggle to balance keeping your work true to what you want it to be, and incorporating those goals organically as you go. Today on the blog, instructional designer Erin Doppke gives an overview of both learning outcomes (LOs) and standard learning outcomes (SLOs), and she shares some of her advice on how you can incorporate SLOs while still keeping your course your own.

What are some of the ways you’ve found to seamlessly integrate SLOs that you’ve been handed into your own course? Share your comments and suggestions with us below.

Your department head visited your office yesterday, handed you a list of bullet points, and said, “These are the standard learning outcomes we talked about at the department meeting yesterday. As we discussed, you need to align your course to these SLOs.”

What are LOs?

Learning outcomes (also called learning objectives or even learning goalsi) are statements that identify what a student should be able to do and under what circumstances. They can be written at different levels—they can identify what students should be able to do after completing a program of study, a single course, or even an activity. Sometimes learning objectives that are written at these different levels are named according to the level, e.g., “program objectives,” “course outcomes,” or “instructional objectives.”

Examples of learning outcomes might be: “Calculate the volume of different shapes,” “Explain the historical significance of slavery in the United States,” or “Create a tool to measure the financial impact of different investment plans.”

Why LOs?

Learning outcomes allow you to focus on the learner. What change do you want to see in the learner from the beginning of the course to the end? Thinking about the learner in this way helps you to organize and focus course content, activities, and assessments to be sure they align with the specific goals that you have articulated. This focus can help courses to be more effective and efficient.

Students benefit from learning outcomes, too. Learning outcomes communicate your expectations for your students’ work, which can help them focus their efforts and be more likely to succeed in their coursework.

Finally, learning outcomes allow instructors and institutions to demonstrate students’ knowledge and/or skill in a measureable way, which helps with accreditation.

What are SLOs?

SLOs are Standard Learning Outcomes, or learning outcomes that your institution has determined should be the same across a body of learning—whether that be from course to course or from curriculum to curriculum. Sometimes these outcomes go under different titles, such as Gen Ed Outcomes or Institutional Outcomes. They are often written in a broader way than other outcomes: where a course’s specific objective might be “List the ways in which Louis Pasteur contributed to the scientific field,” a standard learning outcome might be “List the ways in which important scientists contributed to the field of science.” They may be even more general, e.g., “Students will understand and practice methods of inquiry and strategies of interpretation within the student’s field of study.”ii

Why SLOs?

More and more institutions are using standard learning outcomes. SLOs help to ensure quality across a curriculum—expectations in different sections of a course or even in different courses within a curriculum are consistent. This consistency and quality is very attractive to prospective students and accrediting bodies—but what does it mean for you?

Incorporating SLOs

How can you incorporate SLOs while still keeping your course “yours”?

  • Make sure you know the role of the SLOs. Are they meant to be the focus of the course? Or are they meant to function as additions to your course?
  • Do a mini-“gap analysis.” Compare your current objectives (and especially their corresponding assessments) to the SLOs, and identify where you have gaps. Conversely, identify where your course does not align with the SLOs. Are there places you can trim or modify in order to make sure the focus is in the right place?
  • If you have gaps, re-visit your materials. Are there supplemental materials you can use to save time and refresh the course?
  • For fresh ideas, talk to your colleagues. How are they incorporating the SLOs into their classes? Where did they see gaps, and what did they do?

Keep in mind that you might not have to make as many changes as you think. The higher-level writing that is often a part of SLOs might mean that your current course objectives don’t need any changing at all! And you can reach out for outside help as well, our instructional designers help institutions meet their curriculum and program goals.


i. Cornell University, Assessment of Student Learning webpage, //, accessed 2/19/13
ii. Valparaiso University, Graduate School & Continuing Education page, //, accessed 2/19/13