Down to Basics – Writing Student Learning Outcomes

As others have noted, identifying student learning outcomes is hard work.

First, you have to identify student learning outcomes. Then you have to figure out how to measure them. Then you have to go back and revise … few of us get it “right” the first time.

Take, for example, the following direction often given on an exam: Using law, facts and policy, identify the strongest arguments for the plaintiff and defendant. This looks like basic analysis. But what do the students actually need to do?

– Identify the fundamental and relevant legal principles

– Identify the more sophisticated and nuanced legal issues

– Identify and show how the legal principles apply to facts

– Show how policy arguments support the arguments.

That’s a start, but still could be more refined. One way to approach it:

Start with what an excellent performance would look like. Use active verbs. Perhaps the student doesn’t need to identify all legal issues, but does need to identify all the fundamental elements and at least some of the nuances.

Same with facts – how many facts does the student need to apply to an element to show mastery? Policy?

Now look at the weighting. Is identifying the law as or more important than facts or policy? Assign weights. Now you have the criteria for the highest level of performance. Take the other end of the spectrum – what is unacceptable performance? Once you have identified the two extremes – the highest and the lowest – identify the middle ground. These are the probably the hardest to articulate. There are many ways to earn Bs and Cs.

Even then, as you use some kind of rubric – or detailed scoring sheet – to conduct formative or summative assessment of student learning, you sometimes find it just doesn’t work too well. Back to the drawing board.

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