A guide to developing and assessing learning outcomes

I recently co-authored a Guide  to support programs, departments and instructors at the University of Guelph as they continue to develop and assess learning outcomes such that curricula become increasingly coherent, aligned and evidenced.   We highlight the following 5 steps to curriculum development.

1. Plan
Curriculum committees are often overwhelmed by the  inherent complexities associated with assessing and improving the curriculum. Curriculum development must be viewed as a continuous process (Wolf, 2007).
To manage this process, it is invaluable for committees  to establish a manageable framework for continuous  program assessment and development by establishing a  strategic planning process based on the following questions:
1. Why? (What are your specific goals and objectives for curriculum assessment and improvement?)

2. Who? (Who will you involve? Who are the target stakeholders?)

3. When? (What are your timelines?)

4. How? (What assessment method is most appropriate?)

5. What? (What data will you collect to help inform?)

2. Vision
An outcomes-based approach to education is inherently  dependent upon the identification and communication of  clearly defined learning outcomes, which describe the essential and disciplinary knowledge and abilities that students should possess upon completion of the program. The articulation of meaningful and measurable learning outcomes  that are contextualized within the discipline may require substantial consultations with a range of stakeholders (e.g.  alumni, students, faculty, employers) (Green et al. 2009). As  a valuable first step it is often helpful to discuss, communicate,  and review the broader context of the program:
• What is the purpose of program? Why should it be  offered? What is the need?
• What will make this program innovative and distinctive?
What unique areas of focus or strengths does this program offer?
• How will this program contribute to students’ academic and professional development? How will it be of benefit to them?
• How will the program fulfill its vision and goals? What signature pedagogies (i.e. teaching/learning/assessment activities) should the instructors and
students be involved in?

3. Assess
Learning outcomes provide an opportunity for programs to  effectively review and enhance the alignment between the planned, delivered and experienced curriculum (Bath et al., 2004). A comprehensive approach to learning outcomes  assessment ensures that decisions related to change are informed by data collected from multiple sources. Recommended methods include multi-stakeholder questionnaires, focus groups and Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis, curriculum mapping, curriculum embedded assessment, and reviews of both scholarly literature and of analogous programs.

4. Improve and Align
Data collected through learning outcomes assessment can be used not only to account for student learning, but also ought to be used to engage faculty in critical discussions related to curriculum improvement. Data can be
used to help ensure that decisions related to the alignment between the intended learning outcomes and the educational experiences embedded within the curriculum are evidenced-based. It is at this stage that instructors
and curriculum committees improve, validate and align the curriculum by identifying and leveraging the program strengths, and developing recommendations and strategies to deal with the gaps, redundancies and challenges apparent in the curriculum. Committees may wish to explore specifically:

1. the essential educational experiences that allow students to successfully develop and achieve the intended learning outcomes, including assessment and feedback strategies and signature teaching and
learning activities;
2. the progression of student learning throughout the program, including foundational and capstone experiences, and course sequences and scaffolding; and,
3. course weighting and the balance of between core and elective requirements.

5. Monitor and Adapt
An outcomes-based approach to curriculum development requires developing a focus on continuous improvement (Wolf, 2007). In order to monitor and advance our academic programs, it is important to assess continually that the intended student learning outcomes are actually being achieved within the curriculum. An ongoing multistakeholder curriculum plan provides an opportunity for instructors to collaboratively discuss and propose changes to the curriculum based on data from multiple sources. In order for this process to succeed, learning outcomes must be part of a living curriculum – that is they must be clearly
articulated in a way that is contextualized within the discipline, communicated broadly, continually reviewed and monitored, and effectively integrated into decision-making processes. Learning outcomes provide an opportunity for programs, departments and instructors to create a curriculum that is reviewed and enhanced regularly to support alignment between the planned, enacted and experienced curriculum (Bath et al., 2004).


Bath, D. Smith, C., Stein, S. and Swann, R. 2004 Beyond mapping and embedding graduate attributes: bring together quality assurance and action learning to create a validated and living curriculum. Higher Education Research and Development 23(3): 313-328.

Green, W., Hammer, S. and Star, C. 2009. Facing up to the challenge: why is it so hard to develop graduate attributes. Higher Education Research and Development 28: 17-29.

Wolf, P. 2007. A model for facilitating curriculum development in higher education: a faculty-driven, data-informed, and educational developer-supported approach. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 112: 15-20.