Program Learning Objectives (PLOS)

PLOs are short statements that describe the knowledge(s), skills, values, and habits of mind that students completing a given program should be able to demonstrate upon graduation. PLOs  can address a range of types of knowledge and skills, including cognitive (knowledge or mental skills), psychomotor (physical/motor and kinesthetic skills and knowledge), affective (feelings and attitudes), and interpersonal/social (interpersonal and social abilities).

Exemplary PLOs are stated with clarity and specificity and include precise verbs, rich description of the content, skill, or attitudinal domain in the disciplinary context, and are stated in student-centered terms.

Characteristics of Good PLOs

Most programs will have 5 to 8 PLOs. Some programs write PLOs as major categories, others include “sub-objectives” within major categories to further define student expectations.

Well-written PLOs are relatively short, specific, measurable, attainable, developmentally appropriate, and discipline or context-specific. They function best if written in student-centered language and are future oriented:  “students (or graduates) will be able to…”

PLOs are stronger if they are written in short, simple, declarative statements that do not contain multiple clauses or confusing phrasing.

PLOs should be specific and clearly address a single learning objective or tightly related objective that can be credibly measured together.

PLOs should be developmentally appropriate and attainable for the student population in question. Students should be held to high standards, but only insofar as they can achieve the objective at an appropriate point in their academic career.

PLOs should be measurable which is best achieved by utilizing an observable verb that produces a product.

PLOs should be discipline or context specific, meaning that objectives should reflect the field or domain students are studying.

Two Approaches to Organizing PLOS

Programs develop and list their PLOs in different ways and most utilize one of two approaches: overarching objectives or nested competencies (sub-objectives).

Overarching Objectives articulate a PLO category that describes mastery-level practice.

American Studies

  • Symbol and Myth Analysis. Students will be able to interpret texts from America’s past by isolating symbols and myths that were culturally meaningful to the people at the time.
Nested competencies articulate major PLOs or PLO categories, as well as sub-categories for each PLO. Sub-categories specify essential practices or competencies that can be nested within or underneath the major PLO.

Human Development and Family Studies

  • Students will be able to demonstrate the ability to evaluate and apply theory and research to practice and policy.
    • Students will be able to integrate and apply the findings of empirical research within a theoretical framework to human development
    • Students will be able to explain the strengths and weaknesses of various research methods in assessing human behavior

Establishing Program Learning Objectives

Common approaches for developing learning objectives for undergraduate programs are listed below:

There are multiple strategies for developing program-level learning objectives for undergraduate programs. Here are some common approaches:

  • check your disciplinary organization – some publish a list of program-level learning objectives;
  • examine learning objectives in a capstone or major 400-level course and list the knowledge and skills needed for major course projects;
  • for good examples, look at programs that are the same as or similar to yours but taught at a different campus or university; and
  • conduct an alumni or employer survey to gather information about what is expected of graduates of your program.

The Graduate Council has developed the following Graduates School’s Scholarly and Professional Goals to serve as guidelines for each program’s learning objectives. Graduate program learning objectives must align with these goals..

  1. KNOW: Demonstrate appropriate breadth and depth of disciplinary knowledge, and comprehension of the major issues of their discipline;
  2. APPLY/ CREATE: Use disciplinary methods and techniques to apply knowledge, and—if appropriate to the degree—create new knowledge or achieve advanced creative accomplishment;
  3. COMMUNICATE: Communicate the major issues of their discipline effectively;
  4. THINK: Demonstrate analytical and critical thinking within their discipline, and, where appropriate, across disciplines;
  5. PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE: Know and conduct themselves in accordance with the highest ethical standards, values, and, where these are defined, the best practices of their discipline.

Certificate objectives are course objectives from the courses that make up the certificate

Strategies for Writing PLOs

Many faculty members find the following table helpful in identifying verbs to create measurable objectives. The table below is based on a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson, L.W. & Krathwohl, D.R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing, Abridged Edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon). To access the list, click the image below.

Examples of Well-written Learning Objectives

Biology (American University)

Graduates will be able to…

  1. apply information from core subjects in the biological sciences, including cell biology, genetics, and evolution.
  2. effectively communicate scientific ideas in both written and oral formats.
  3. demonstrate the scientific method through the use of hypothesis testing in the design and implementation of an experiment, analysis of experimental data, and presentation of results and conclusions.
  4. demonstrate informational literacy by having the ability and skills to effectively and legitimately use various sources of information required for functioning in a global, information society.
  5. critically analyze primary scientific literature.
  6. demonstrate that they can perform a set of basic laboratory skills.

English (Cal State Long Beach)

Graduates will be able to…

  1. read a variety of texts critically and proficiently to demonstrate in writing or speech the comprehension, analysis, and interpretation of those texts;
  2. write a literary or expository text using the conventions of standard English as stylistically appropriate, while showing a nuanced use of language (producing such a text may include invention, workshopping, research, compiling bibliographies, drafting, peer responses, revising, and/or editing);
  3. demonstrate knowledge and comprehension of major texts and traditions of language and literature written in English as well as their social, cultural, theoretical, and historical contexts;
  4. analyze and interpret texts written in English, evaluating and assessing the results in written or oral arguments using appropriate support;
  5. design and create texts for a variety of purposes and audiences, evaluating and assessing the effectiveness and meaning of such texts.

Examples of Poorly Written Learning Objectives

1. Students will be able to understand psychological theories

Words such as understand, know, learn, and appreciate are fine for goals but are too vague to be measurable. How do you know students understand? Because they can solve equations? Because they can compare and contrast theories? Because they can describe a process? Specifying the verb helps clarify the knowledge and skills expected of students who graduate from your program and makes assessment easier.

2. Students will be able to communicate orally and in writing

Good program-level learning objectives include a disciplinary context. Types of communication differ by discipline. A biologist needs to be able to describe a laboratory experiment clearly. An English major may need to be able to use language creatively to communicate an idea or emotion.

3. Students will be provided with research opportunities

Good program learning objectives focus on what the graduates of the program will know or be able to do, rather than what a program provides. Another way to phrase this objective could be:

Students will be able to analyze and interpret quantitative psychological data using statistics, graphs, and data tables.

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