Why are SLOs Important?

Using best practices for Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), you can center students in the learning experiences, reveal to them how to cultivate and retain learning, help them connect required and “chosen” classes, and begin to shift their checklist views of education into lifelong learning and growth mindset.

Center Students in SLOs

To craft clear, transparent student learning outcomes, you write from the students’ learning perspective… what specifically will students know and/or be able to do when they complete your course or program? When you align the outcomes to the assignments, you show students how each part of their work builds their proficiency in the outcomes. Alignment further reveals how outcomes synthesize or initiate learning in other courses, future learning, and lifelong goals.

Teach Students to Learn

To gain proficiency, students need to practice effectively and retain and build on their learning.  When you encourage students to read, process, and reflect on the student learning outcomes on your syllabus, you help them to practice their metacognitive skills, so they learn to learn more effectively. You show them what your course will help them learn and hint at how they will build this learning as you connect the outcomes to prior learning and lifelong goals. In fact, clear outcomes enhance students’ gains from deliberate practice and the testing effect.

Deliberate Practice

Clarifying your outcomes makes deliberate practice more effective. Students know what to work on, since clear outcomes…

  • Identify what students will DO
  • Help students MONITOR their progress
  • Can be MEASURED by teachers and students
  • Are supported by tools (like rubrics) that specify HOW MUCH learning achievement is required

Outcomes specify what students will be practicing, setting students up for successful deliberate practices. If the outcomes aren’t clear, “it is difficult for students to know what (or how) to practice” (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, Norman, & Mayer, 2010, pp. 127-128. See Ericsson, 2008; Ericsson & Harwell, 2019.) Students need your help to practice effectively and beginning this work with learning outcomes clarifies their efforts.

The Testing Effect

Your student learning outcomes can also help students benefit from (and gain awareness of) the testing effect.

The testing effect is about more than quizzes, tests, and exams–the testing effect is rooted in retrieval. Each time you learn something new, you retain it more effectively when you recall and produce that concept. (That’s why reading quizzes can be so effective for foundational learning.) The goal is to get students to take in course concepts, think about them, recall and produce those concepts (for example through a test question, reading questions, a query in the margin of a reading, etc.). Then they can take those ideas in again, recall them and apply them in new ways, and demonstrate that they’ve internalized and retained the ideas. 

The testing effect is central to how we effectively scaffold and build student learning, and our aligned outcomes reinforce this idea for students. When we show students how they will build learning in the outcomes across multiple assignments (and/or courses), we show them how they …

  • Take in Knowledge
  • Recall and Produce Knowledge
  • Take in Knowledge Again
  • Recall and Produce Knowledge in New Ways/at Higher Levels
  • Retain & Apply to Similar and Different Situations

We can help students to see this effective learning strategy by calling their attention to it and articulating it formally in aligned outcomes and assignments. When we align student learning outcomes to the specific work students will be doing (and have already done), we reveal how we are engaging the testing effect to help them retain learning.

(See Karpicke, 2012. Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163. Cited and explained in Hodges, 2015.)

Connect Learning Experiences

Aligning outcomes mitigates what Linda Nilson (2007) has called “disciplinary amnesia,” that is, when students begin a new course “as if their previous semesters of courses in the major and its prerequisites never happened” (p. 86). Unfortunately, this can happen within courses as well–students’ cognitive load may limit their capacity to see how each of the assignments connect to each other, diminishing the effectiveness of their scaffolded practicing.

When we craft clear outcomes and link them to students’ other learning (earlier classes in the major, general education classes, concurrent classes, co-curricular, and out-of-school learning), students can begin to see how multiple learning experiences are challenging them to build their skills.

Amend Checklist Views

Even though general education requirements and major requirements may appear as checklists, we want to discourage students’ “checklist” or transactional mentality and help them to cultivate growth mindset and lifelong learning skills. Articulating clear outcomes at the course level and aligning to the program can help students to envision connections across courses and strengthen students’ perceptions of relevance. (See Hutchings, 2011, p. 37).

Selected References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ericsson, K. A. (2008). Deliberate practice and acquisition of expert performance: A general overview. Academic Emergency Medicine, 15(11), 988–994. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1553-2712.2008.00227.x

Ericsson, K. A. (2020). Given that the detailed original criteria for deliberate practice have not changed, could the understanding of this complex concept have improved over time? A response to Macnamara and Hambrick (2020). Psychological Research. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-020-01368-3

Ericsson, K. A., & Harwell, K. W. (2019). Deliberate practice and proposed limits on the effects of practice on the acquisition of expert performance: Why the original definition matters and recommendations for future research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02396

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.100.3.363

Hodges, L.C. (2015). Teaching undergraduate science: A guide to overcoming obstacles to student learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163.

Nilson, L. B. (2007). The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Winkelmes, M. A., Boye, A., & Tapp, S. (2019). Transparent design in higher education teaching and leadership: A guide to implementing the transparency framework institution-wide to improve learning and retention. Sterling, VA: Stylus.


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