One of the most significant changes to the new Institutional Quality Assurance Procedures (IQAP) is the focus on program-level learning outcomes. Program-level learning outcomes are now part of the required documentation for new program development, curriculum modification (where applicable) and the cyclical review of existing programs. The centrality of program-level learning outcomes within these documents speaks to a provincial, national, and even global movement towards outcomes-based curriculum development and assessment.
A program-level learning outcome can be defined as a statement about what a graduate of the program should be able to know and/or do upon completion of their degree. The terms outcome and objective are often used interchangeably, but they each imply a different level of measurability and specificity. An objective tends to be more general and broad than an outcome and can be compared to a goal or an aim. Objectives may also be phrased from the perspective of what a course or program will do, rather than what a student should be able to demonstrate. An example of a general program objective might be: “this program will equip students with the necessary tools for success in their future careers.” This statement does identify a goal of the program, but it is both general and would be difficult to measure, since the “necessary tools” aren’t specified. It also isn’t clear what role the student plays in this process. The verb “equip” is similarly vague, and doesn’t indicate how this outcome will be achieved.
Learning outcomes are often written using the SMART acronym as a guideline. SMART stands for Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. These criteria can be very useful in developing learning outcomes. Program-level learning outcomes should be written from the perspective of the student rather than the course or program. They should be realistically achievable within the time period that the student will be enrolled in the program, and they have to be able to be measured in some way. The IQAP documents ask not only for a statement about what the program-level learning outcomes are, but how they have informed and are congruent with the design of program curriculum (in the case of new programs) and how they are measured and reflected upon (for cyclical review purposes).
The Quality Assurance Office and Teaching Support Services are happy to help facilitate workshops or informal sessions with academic units to craft a set of program-level learning outcomes. Oftentimes, having someone from outside the unit with a fresh set of eyes and expertise in the area can provide a valuable perspective. Over the years, our offices have developed established techniques for creating and refining program-level learning outcomes. If the unit has existing objectives or outcomes, we can work with those, or start from the beginning.
Our process often involves using the province’s established undergraduate or graduate Degree Level Expectations (UDLEs and GDLEs) as a starting point for developing program-specific learning outcomes. Using the UDLEs and GDLEs as a framework for developing outcomes can be useful since alignment between the program’s own outcomes and the provincial expectations is required for both the new Program Proposal Brief and the cyclical review Self-Study. The UDLEs and GDLEs also provide a framework for understanding the different types of knowledge and skills that a program-level outcome might address. We combine the use of the provincial expectations with different taxonomies of learning so that units can choose the language that best reflects the type and level of learning that is being targeted in each outcome.
The movement towards an outcomes-based approach to program development and review has numerous potential benefits for students, academic units, and the institution as a whole. Developing a set of program-level learning outcomes can lead to the development of a curriculum that allows the outcomes to be achieved systematically as the student progresses throughout the program. Evaluating the achievement of program outcomes can prompt reflective dialogue about what is working well within the curriculum, as well as provide the opportunity and motivation to make changes when necessary. Learning outcomes can be used to attract students to the program insofar as they make transparent what students should be able to achieve in the course of their degree (in other words, what they will ‘get’ out of it). Lastly, an institution that makes public its program-level learning outcomes makes a statement about both the quality and accountability of the educational experiences that it offers.
For more information about program-level learning outcomes, or to arrange for a workshop or consultation, please contact the Quality Assurance Office.