Identifying program outcomes

Outcomes are statements that describe what students will be able to know (cognitive), do (psychomotor), and feel/model (affective) by the end of the program or course of study. Outcomes describe measurable behaviours. Most outcomes have three parts: an action, a topic, and a criterion or context. Note that terminology is used interchangeably; you may find "outcomes," "objectives," and "goals" used to mean the same thing in different settings. The semantics are less critical than the essential notion: statements describing what students will have learned, articulated in a way that allows that learning to be measured.

In general, we recommend developing eight to twelve outcomes for the program. In practice, many graduate programs have fewer, perhaps six to eight outcomes.

The ideal graduate

To generate program outcomes, we encourage departments to begin with their ideal graduate. What knowledge, skills, and values would students in your department develop if there were unlimited resources?  If you had the freedom to focus on any area in your discipline, what would you want your students to learn? Ultimately, this list of attributes, which is often developed through a brainstorm at a program retreat or a department meeting, reflects who the department wants its students to be.

From the ideal graduate to program outcomes

Realistically, we cannot focus only on the ideal. There are many contextual factors that influence the design of our program, including the availability of resources, the expectations of key stakeholders such as students and the institution, accreditation requirements, etc. Based on these ideal attributes, we develop program outcomes that account for the relevant contextual factors.

Program outcomes

  • Writing intended learning outcomes – Although many of the examples on this Centre for Teaching Excellence tip sheet relate to outcomes at the course level, the same principles apply at the program level, although the context and scope might be broader.
  • Program outcomes database – The University of Ottawa’s Centre for University Teaching developed the Directory of University Program Learning Outcomes. It is an extensive database of outcomes from programs around the world, with a focus on Canadian and American institutions. Outcome samples are available at the undergraduate, masters and PhD level.
  • Information Literacy Competency Standards - These competencies describe a variety of knowledge and skills related to information literacy and were developed by the Association of College & Research Libraries
  • Research Skill Development Framework for curriculum design and assessment - The University of Adelaide, Australia created this framework, which articulates outcomes related to various facets of research and students' level of autonomy in the research process.

These statements are used throughout the curriculum design process as well as the evaluations of the program. A balance must be strict; few outcomes can mean they are too broad to assess while too many can make design restrictive.