In a recently published policy statement by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), the authors admit that despite three decades since “the assessment bandwagon began rolling across the landscape of American higher education the term ‘student learning outcomes assessment’ is still not familiar to either policy makers or to the public.” The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, in its 2010 publication Guiding Principles for SLO Assessment, warned about “confusion” and “frustration” felt among faculty resulting from the SLO assessment mandate in the accreditation standards. The book Redesigning America’s Community Colleges states that “learning outcomes are too often poorly defined.” To help alleviate this confusion, the Academic Senate published an SLO Terminology Glossary in 2009 that attempted to define what a student learning outcome really is. Even though “student learning outcome” has the longest definition in the glossary, the definition has not managed to alleviate all of the angst about outcomes that persists in the community college system.
Not much has changed to ease the burden for faculty struggling to develop overarching SLO statements. Faculty continue to ask, “How overarching is overarching enough?” As recently as 2015, NILOA wrote a paper devoted solely to the topic of semantics and syntax of learning outcomes, with specific “language-centered principles, guidelines and tools for writing student learning outcomes statements.” The paper cautions that attempts to analyze the vast literature surrounding student learning outcomes statements would be a “major undertaking.” On community college campuses, faculty attempts to define SLOs can vary widely. At the same time, SLOs continue to be an increasing part of everyday life. Seven years have passed since the ASCCC originally published the SLO Glossary, and confusion about what SLOs really are continues. Those that hoped to find a clear definition with which everyone could agree have become resigned to the fact that bewilderment and uncertainty are here to stay.
When searching for information on SLO terminology in literature dealing with SLOs, one will quickly realize that the term SLO is often equated with “competency.” SLOs are frequently written as statements expressing competence and sets of skills. Even the 2009 ASCCC publication refers to “competency” as synonymous with student learning outcome and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges uses the term in its 2014 standards on par with SLOs (Standard II).
Many years have passed since faculty started reacting to the onslaught of SLOs, and now they may be more confused than ever, but a conversation about the idea of SLOs as “competencies” could be a useful step toward achieving more clarity. “Competencies” or “core competencies” are definitely concepts that faculty can relate to without having to open any glossaries to explain the terms to themselves, the public, or the policy makers. The question of “overarching” concepts would certainly go away. “Competencies” are at the core of what faculty teach, observe, assess, and most importantly talk about with ease. A conversation void of murky terms and overarching concepts that overshadow the teaching and experience in the classroom might go a long way in helping to clarify this idea. Over the course of a term, faculty teach; at the conclusion of a class, students leave their classrooms with abilities and skills they have learned. Defining student learning outcomes in this way could help put an end to the confusion.