Program Learning Outcomes & Program Objectives
For departments and schools, learning outcomes provide a roadmap for curriculum, and a goal post for student achievement. They serve as essential reference points for academic departments to discuss the elements that contribute to an integrated program of study. The Ontario Quality Framework requires programs to be intentional about the choice and development of their program outcomes and to clearly communicate their roadmap for student learning.
For instructors, program learning outcomes provide a broad picture of the program and offer insights into how each course and other program experiences contribute to the development of the knowledge, skills, and values/attitudes expected of their graduates.
For students, program learning outcomes communicate the skills successful graduates will develop, and the types of knowledge they learn in preparation for employment, further education, and to participate as critically informed citizens.
For employers, program learning outcomes outline what they can confidently expect from potential employees.
The difference between program objectives or goals and program outcomes is a difference in perspective. Program goals or objectives are part of the planning process. They describe what a program plans or seeks to achieve. The focus is on what is promoted in and delivered by the program (e.g. broad areas of focus or approach(es), learning activities used, and experiences or opportunities offered). Program objectives also help define what makes the program unique and meaningful, and ultimately provide direction and justification for program and course-level curricular decisions.
In contrast, program learning outcomes focus on the skills developed by graduates, outlining the knowledge, skills, and values/attitudes that a graduate will be able to demonstrate. Rather than focus on the material that will be covered or the experiences they’ll have, program learning outcomes focus on how students understand and employ that material and the specific knowledge, skills and attitudes they will be able to demonstrate as a result.
Comparison of UDLEs, Program Objectives, Program Learning Outcomes, and Course Learning Outcomes
|Undergraduate Degree-Level Expectations (UDLEs)
|Established by the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents (OCAV)
|Student-focused: describing the expected level of intellectual and creative achievement for a graduate of a Bachelor’s degree program.
|Used to assess graduates of all Bachelor’s degree programs in Ontario.
|Universal for all Bachelor’s degrees. Not unique to each program.
|Established by the program
|Program-focused: describing the program’s goals, focusing on what is promoted and delivered by the program. Objectives may address the structure of the program, the kinds of learning opportunities offered, and goals beyond the program.
|Used in program planning and curricular design.
|Unique to each program.
|Program-level Learning Outcomes
|Established by the program
Student-focused: describing what graduates of the program will be able to do with the learned body of knowledge, the set of skills, and the attitudes or values considered important for success in the discipline.
Used in assessing student achievement and curricular alignment with the expected outcomes of program graduates.
Unique to each program.
|Course-Level Learning Outcomes
|Established by the instructor (or program)
|Student-focused: describing the knowledge, skills, and values/attitudes that students will be able to demonstrate upon successful completion of a specific course.
|Used in assessing student achievement of the expected outcomes of a specific course.
|Unique to each course.
For more information on Program Objectives and Program Learning Outcomes, see the Quality Council definitions, with examples (external link)
Program objectives and program learning outcomes are used at Toronto Metropolitan to guide the design and revision of all academic programs.
New Program Development
All new program development involves developing program objectives, and identifying the skills, knowledge and capabilities of the intended graduate, which are then refined into intended program learning outcomes. Both the program objectives and the intended program learning outcomes should be developed before planning courses, or laying out the structure for a program. The courses, structures, and course elements should then be designed to provide students with the experiences required to achieve the program’s intended outcomes and to align with the program’s objectives. Otherwise, it can be likened to designing a car by providing superb and highly specialized components first, and leaving it to students to make sense of how they may or may not fit together.
Periodic Program Review (PPR)
The PPR process begins with a thorough review of the program objectives and program learning outcomes. Program objectives are developed or updated to ensure that there are clear and relevant goals guiding what is promoted in and delivered by the program. Program learning outcomes are reviewed and updated to ensure that they are demonstrable and represent the relevant, current, and discipline-specific knowledge, skills, and related attributes expected of program graduates. Mapping courses to the program learning outcomes helps identify where and how outcomes are achieved, and supports the review of how the learning is delivered and assessed in the program.
Major Curriculum Modification(s)
Any major curriculum modification involves mapping the changes to both the Ontario Degree-Level Expectations (DLEs) and the program learning outcomes to ensure that sufficient coverage is achieved or maintained. Mapping the modified curriculum helps to ensure that all changes support students’ achievement of the program learning outcomes, and that there are no resulting gaps or inconsistencies.
Strong and intentional curricular design at each of these stages ensures learning is thoughtfully integrated and assessed throughout the program so that students can acquire the knowledge, skills, and values/attitudes needed to progress from one year to the next, and to succeed upon graduation.
Backwards design: Once you have determined the knowledge, skills, values and attributes that graduates of your program should have, the next step is to articulate those skills in demonstrable and measurable program learning outcomes. The curriculum is then designed and developed to meet those outcomes.
- Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design (2005) and “backwards design”
New program development
Developing program objectives and program learning outcomes for new programs should involve key faculty who will be responsible for delivering the program, and be informed by disciplinary experts, potential employers, and/or others as appropriate to the field. Your Curriculum Specialist will provide support and guidance when developing objectives and learning outcomes for new programs. Please contact us for additional information or support.
Periodic Program Review
Revising program goals and program learning outcomes for program review should include the core PPR team consisting of faculty members and an administrative assistant. The process will at times involve all faculty members who regularly teach the core components of the program. Academic program delivery requires a collective commitment and shared responsibility. Your Curriculum Specialist will provide support and guidance to the program when reviewing and revising program goals and program learning outcomes for PPR. Please contact us for additional information or support.