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Graphic Display of Student Learning Objectives

Assessment of course quality, student learning, and professor effectiveness has become paramount in many of today’s universities and colleges.  We seem always to strive for a better way to assess our work or the work of our colleagues.  One way to simplify assessment is to use student learning outcomes (SLOs) or goals for a course.  On a syllabus, you might find these written as “you should be able to” statements.  These SLOs use verbs gleaned from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, as these verbs are clear and even more importantly, it seems, they are measurable.  So, at the end of a course, we want students to evaluate, create, construct, solve, access, analyze, or describe.  Then, we measure how well they are able to perform these tasks.  Additionally, at the end of a course, departments or colleges assess the course in terms of how well students met the SLOs.

Creating SLOs or goals for a course is simple to us, usually.  We want students to learn certain skills, we create assignments that will help students reach those goals, and we’ll judge how well they have learned those skills.  The goals might be listed in a syllabus, but is it clear to students who they will achieve those goals?  Do they understand the connection between assignments and student learning objectives?

A graphical display of this information might be helpful.

Below is a graphic that depicts the student learning outcomes for a course I taught last year, a course for preservice teachers and the teaching of writing in K-12 schools.  This graphic displays the three learning objectives for the course, and it connects the course assignment to the learning objectives.  Students can see—at a glance—that work none of course assignments are random or arbitrary (an occasional student complaint), but that each assignment links directly to a course learning objective.

I used this graphic in the course syllabus, and we discuss its importance the first week of the course.  Throughout the term, I relate assignments to this chart to remind students (and myself) why we are doing what we are doing.  In this graph, it’s clear that many of the assignments helped achieve more than one learning outcome.

The syllabus graphic is quite simple and it’s one that students easily understand.  Additionally, I use an expanded graphic (below) when thinking about small goals within the larger learning objectives.

For a graduate course in Ethnographic Research Methods, I used a graphic display that depicted how individual assignments helped achieve a single goal.  This helped students understand that if they missed one assignment, for example, they could not meet one of the objectives for the course.


Graphic displays in syllabi are not new.  In fact, The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course (Linda Nilson) is an interesting way to organize graphically an entire course.  An example of a graphic syllabus can be found in Dr. W. Mark Smillie’s displays of his philosophy courses [.pdf file].

But why go to all this trouble?  Do students really care about how a course is constructed and how their assignments meet certain goals?  Some students won’t care.  Moreover, they rarely remember the connection between course content and assignments.  The course and the assignments can all seem random and arbitrary.  Nevertheless, some students will care, and some will appreciate the connections.

Most importantly, however, using this graphic display—whether used on a syllabus or not—is an excellent way for faculty members and administrators to keep student learning in focus.  If an assignment doesn’t help a student reach a stated learning objective, maybe that assignment isn’t necessary.  With this knowledge, an assignment faculty can modify the assignment to make it meet students’ learning needs.

Along with helping faculty think and rethink our courses, graphical displays provide a number of benefits to students.  Graphical displays are clearer to visual learners, they show how a course is organized, and they function as a map to a course.

How about you?  Do you use graphical displays in your syllabus, in your course?  How has this worked for you?  Please leave suggestions and comments below.

[Image of Hot Air Balloons by Flickr user Eric Ward and used under the Creative Commons license.  Graphics by Billie Hara.]

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