What are Program Learning Outcomes?
Program learning outcomes are statements that describe what learners will know and be able to do when they graduate from a program. They are closely linked to the credential framework and program standards set by the provincial Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities. Program standards apply to all similar programs offered by colleges across the province. Each program standard includes the following three elements:
- Vocational standard (the vocationally specific learning outcomes which apply to the program in question),
- Essential employability skills (the essential employability skills learning outcomes which apply to all programs of instruction), and
- General education requirement (the requirement for general education in postsecondary programs of instruction).
The vocational and essential employability skills components of program standards are expressed as learning outcomes.
How do program learning outcomes influence curriculum development and program review?
If you are developing curriculum at a program level, you will need to ensure that you have identified program learning outcomes that are clear statements of performance describing what graduates of your program will be able to do. These need to be congruent with the credential framework, existing program standards and the needs of the workplace. Courses and learning experiences in the program need to be aligned with the program learning outcomes.
If you are developing, revising or teaching curriculum at the course level, you will want to have a clear understanding of how your course is expected to contribute to the achievement of one or more of the program learning outcomes. The course learning outcomes (or course learning requirements) and learning experiences in the course need to reflect this alignment.
If you are engaged in program review, you will want to ensure that the program learning outcomes for your program are still current and relevant for the workplace. You will also want to ensure that the program’s curriculum and how it is delivered guides learners to achieve the program learning outcomes and provides opportunities for them to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning described in the program learning outcomes.
Definition and Characteristics of Program Learning Outcomes
Program learning outcomes describe what the learner will be able to do at the end of their program of study. They describe learning that is significant and durable – learning that really matters in the long term.
Learning outcomes are different from behavioural objectives. Learning outcomes describe performances that require one to integrate and apply one’s learning. They do not break learning into domains such as knowledge, skills and attitudes. They do not describe discreet skills or specific facts but a more holistic performance. Learning outcomes describe what the learner will be able to demonstrate at the end of a period of learning. They do not describe the inputs to learning or the processes of the learning.
These qualities of learning outcomes are embedded in the definition of learning outcomes provided by the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (MTCU).
“Learning outcomes represent culminating demonstrations of learning and achievement. In addition, learning outcomes are interrelated and cannot be viewed in isolation of one another. As such, they should be viewed as a comprehensive whole. They describe performances that demonstrate that significant integrated learning by graduates of the program has been achieved and verified.” – Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, “Published College Program Standards.” (updated June 22, 2007)
Another definition that emphasizes the need for learning outcomes to be significant and describe integrated learning that can be linked to the “real world” comes from Bill Spady.
“A learning outcome is an acceptable, culminating demonstration of learning which occurs in an authentic performance context and really matters in the long run.” – Bill Spady, 1993
Tips for Writing or Revising Program Learning Outcomes
- Don’t work alone. When developing or revising learning outcomes at the program level engage colleagues and representatives from professional associations, advisory committees or the work place to help you identify current needs and trends in the field or discipline.
- Check to see if there are published program standards for the program. If there are, you can use these as they are or you may want to modify or add to these learning outcomes to reflect the needs of your program. You will need to show that the outcomes you develop meet the outcomes published in the program standard. If there is not a published program standard but there is another program like the one you are developing in one of the Ontario colleges, you will be able to get a document called a Program Description. This will contain a statement of expected learning for the graduates. You can build from this as you develop your outcomes.
- Start by capturing your ideas. You can edit and “wordsmith” later.
- Write what you want all graduates to be able to do at the end of the program as clearly as you can. Then ask yourself:
- Is this important? Will it really matter in the long run?
- Would employers, other educators etc. agree?
- Is this a performance that learners can demonstrate? OR If you are having trouble starting from the end, make a list of all the abilities that you think it is important for graduates of your program to learn—then group the ideas. Ask yourself;
- What items can be grouped together because they speak to the same performance? Some items may describe knowledge or skills that can be integrated into a single performance.
- What items are subsets of others?
- What items can be eliminated? Are all items important? Will they be important three years from now?
- Why do you want graduates to be able to do this? What do you want them to do with the this knowledge or skill?
- Identify performances that you expect of graduates and write them to complete the statement…
Graduates will have reliably demonstrated an ability to….
Choose the verbs carefully. The verbs are the “powerhouse” of the outcome statement.
- Describe only one performance at a time.
- Use this checklist to review your outcome statements.
Consider each program learning outcome to ensure that it
- Is clearly stated
- Is verifiable (learners can demonstrate that they have achieved the ability described in the outcome)
- Describes learning that is essential, durable, meaningful and significant
- Describes learning that is transferable
- Describes learning that is performance-based
- Describes learning that is achieved at the end of the program
- Is free of cultural and/or gender bias
- Is consistent with the rationale for the program
- Consider the learning outcomes collectively to ensure that they
- Reflect the credential being awarded to graduates of the program (see credential framework)
- Reflect published program standards (if they exist)
- Are consistent with expectations of any professional groups, industry guidelines etc.
- Do not overlap
- Are manageable in number
- Review your draft outcomes with someone else to see if they are clear to them. You can check their understanding by asking them to describe a specific performance that would indicate that a learner had achieved the learning described in the outcome.