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Student Learning Outcomes Study: What You Need to Know

August 13, 2018

Is an A on a college transcript equivalent to a new skill?

When a student completes a course, what has the student learned from it? Can she demonstrate her new understanding in measurable ways? How can the university be sure the course is of real value to the student? These questions all relate to the vital goal behind every course or program at an institution of higher education — the learning outcome.

Some people use the terms “learning objective,” “learning goal,” and “learning outcome” interchangeably. The goal of a course is broad and over-arching, usually expressed in fairly general terms. Course objectives typically define the content covered in a course on an academic level.

Student learning outcomes, according to the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, are “defined as the particular knowledge, skills, and abilities that an instructor intends for students to learn or develop… Research suggests that when [learning outcomes] are well written, clear, and measurable, [they] can improve learning and motivate student engagement.”

So, what is the state of learning outcomes? How are institutions using them, and what have institutions learned? In early 2018, the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) released a report on trends in student learning, including a number of findings about student learning outcomes. Explore five of these findings and determine how you can invigorate the results of student learning outcomes at your institution of higher education.

1. Institution-wide alignment of student learning outcomes has increased.

According to the NILOA report, most educational institutions understand the need for statements of learning. In fact, the majority already have such statements in place for their undergraduate students. Increasingly, institutions are working to align broader learning goals across all programs, and they are striving to ensure that each learning outcome statement contributes to the broader goals of the school.

Since the last survey of this kind, back in 2013, educators have made notable strides towards alignment of learning outcomes. Here are the current numbers, straight from the 2018 report.

  • 82% of respondents claimed that their school has created learning outcomes for all students.
  • 50% of respondents confirmed that all of their programs have defined learning outcomes that align with shared institution-wide statements of learning.

This kind of planning and unity yields immense benefits to the institution as a whole. The more unified and intentional an institution is in its educational efforts, the more student success they will see. More capable, better-prepared students are a walking advertisement for the school; so defining student learning outcomes could eventually lead to higher enrollment numbers.

Where does your institution stand? Are there learning outcomes statements for all undergraduate programs? Have faculty members established learning outcomes for graduate program courses?

2. Clarification of learning outcomes is linked to a fresh emphasis on educational equity.

Part of the need for this unity and clarity of student learning outcomes relates to the modern-day emphasis on equity. Equity is not the same thing as equality, and many institutions realize this and are taking appropriate action.

  • Equality is treating everyone the same way.
  • Equity is giving every student what he or she needs to succeed.

Equality and equity are two vital tools that educational institutions can use to ensure fairness. According to Blair Mann, writing for, “All students should have the resources necessary for a high-quality education. But the truth remains that some students need more to get there… The students who are furthest behind — most often low-income students and students of color — require more of those resources to catch up, succeed, and eventually, close the achievement gap.”

By defining student learning outcomes, educators can then focus on giving every student the tools, attention, and customized learning experience he or she needs to achieve the desired result.

3. Institutions are incorporating more accurate, authentic ways of gauging student learning.

Educators continue to recognize the value of “authentic measures of student learning,” according to the NILOA report. Professors are using creative tactics to find more accurate ways to gauge what students have really absorbed, including some of the following:

Percentage of institutions using assessment approaches at the institution level to represent undergraduate student learning.

  • National student surveys
  • Alumni feedback
  • Capstone projects
  • General knowledge measures
  • Portfolios
  • Placement exams
  • Employer feedback
  • External performance assessments

Institutions that function for profit are most likely to use employer feedback (86%) and alumni feedback (82%), while public institutions may primarily employ placement exams (67%) and are less likely to rely on external performance assessments.

There isn’t a single perfect way to gather information about student learning outcomes — a variety of methods often yield a more detailed picture of reality. What’s more important than the data’s source is its quality — it must be reliable and actionable.

4. Provosts are focused on helping faculty analyze student assessments and make practical changes to programs.

The NILOA survey found that more faculty (51%) now use the results of student learning assessment to inform any adjustments to their program, compared to previous surveys. This particular finding, along with other data in the report, accompanies a shift in how institutions move forward with their student assessments.

In the 2009 survey, the emphasis was on the faculty, and how they must be deeply engaged in the process in order for institutions to gain accurate results. Now, the focus is on “supporting faculty use of assessment results and wider stakeholder involvement,” according to NILOA study authors. Provosts and other institutional leaders are discovering fresh ways to motivate faculty to take in the results of student assessment, understand where change needs to happen, and take immediate, practical action.

5. Institutions need ongoing research programs, assessment committees, and software tools to assess student learning.

Creating student learning outcomes is the first step to ensuring students obtain value from each of their courses; assessing their learning and making the appropriate changes is another matter. Formulating student learning outcomes, implementing a variety of assessments, analyzing the results, and modifying programs are a few of the steps in a complex process. In order to accomplish all of that on an ongoing basis, institutions require dedicated time from administration individuals that understand student systems.

Find more time on your calendar with Kuali; we’ll take care of your curriculum and catalog management processes while you complete the tasks that only you can do. Enjoy automated processes inside an easy-to-use software that eliminates paper-based processes and tracks changes to courses as they are approved. Visit to discover how other institutions are using Kuali Student to simplify higher education administration.

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