Critiquing program outcomes

As described in the previous sections, program-level learning outcomes (Learning Outcomes) are statements that describe what students should be able to achieve by the end of the program. Learning Outcomes reflect the disciplinary context in which the program is situated and serve as criteria against which to evaluate the program. This page focuses on Learning Outcomes’ function in program review; for an introduction to Learning Outcomes, visit the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) web site, Identifying program outcomes.


  1. Do the Learning Outcomes specify what all students who graduate from the degree program should be able to accomplish? The emphasis on all is a reminder that Learning Outcomes reflect the degree requirements of the program regardless of the specializations, options, minors, electives, or experiential opportunities a student completes. In this sense they help you to set the bar for minimum expectations to leave with your stamp of approval.
  2. Is each Learning Outcome stated from the perspective of the learner? Although we often use the terms goals, objectives, and outcomes interchangeably, Learning Outcomes reflect a student’s knowledge, skills, and abilities whereas program goals shape the program’s design. For example, a goal of the program might be to draw on a variety of disciplinary perspectives. As a result, a relevant Learning Outcome would be “By the end of the program, the student should be able to integrate tools, techniques and perspectives from multiple disciplines to solve complex problems”.
  3. Are the Learning Outcomes comprehensive, representative of both the depth and breadth of the program? One of the challenges when constructing these statements is to capture the right level of specificity. Consider the Learning Outcome, “By the end of the program, a student should be able to write a persuasive essay”. While that might be the case, is that the only form of written communication expected of program graduates? That outcome might be more appropriate at the course level whereas at the program level, written communication might reflect a broader scope of audience, format, and purpose, such as “By the end of the program, the student should be able to communicate (findings/ information/ arguments/ analyses) accurately in written, oral, and multimedia formats to their colleagues and a general audience.”


  1. Is each Learning Outcome measurable? By designing specific, measurable statements, Learning Outcomes serve as criteria against which to measure the program. Consider the example, “By the end of the program, a student should be able to integrate evidence-based practice to design and implement a research project.” To complement this outcome, indicators can be specified either as a sequenced collection of assessments throughout the curriculum or in terms of an integrative final artefact (a project or thesis) to clarify the scope and context of the outcome (Is this a collaborative project? What is the level of autonomy expected of the student when designing and implementing the project?). This idea is further explored on the CTE web page Refining the outcomes.
  2. Do the Learning Outcomes sufficiently distinguish between programs offered within the department? Many departments at Waterloo offer multiple degrees at the same level (e.g., undergraduate programs with both co-op and regular streams, masters programs in the same discipline offered as either a professional degree or a thesis-based degree, similar degrees offered at the undergraduate level with key differences (e.g., the “X and Business” programs). If two students receive a different degree, the distinctiveness of the degree should be reflected in the Learning Outcomes.


  1. Do the Learning Outcomes integrate the language and frameworks of the discipline? As an example, consider the concept of design. What does design mean in the discipline? What is a student designing (e.g., a solution to a problem, a process or procedure, art, music, a written composition, something tangible such as a tool, model, or building or perhaps something intangible such as a computer algorithm)? What does the program emphasize: the end result, the process, models, techniques? How is design assessed? Learning Outcomes need to reflect the program’s disciplinary context, not only the generic skills developed in any degree.
  2. Do the Learning Outcomes include elements that demonstrate the uniqueness of the program and distinguish it from similar programs at other institutions? For some programs, this might not be a priority, but it is worth reflecting on whether it is important to the department. For programs that have counterparts at several institutions, capturing this uniqueness helps articulate the value of studying this discipline at Waterloo.