Transparency in Learning and Teaching: Begin with SMARTE and SMARTER Student Learning Objectives

In my work as an instructional consultant in CTL, I often discuss with faculty how to adjust the wording of course student learning objectives (SLOs) to exemplify measurable SLOs. This served as the initial impetus for creating an infographic to disseminate best practices for constructing student-centered and action-oriented SLOs. However, there is a lot more to the concept of developing student learning objectives than the need to comply with the administrative constraint to use a verb that describes an observable action (Dobbins, et al., 2016; Mitchell & Manzo, 2018).

SLOs are statements that describe what students will be able to do to demonstrate their learning (Maher, 2004). They signify the expectation of a change in students as a result of a learning experience. For this reason, taking the time to construct well-written and measurable SLOs is only valuable to the extent that the specified objectives serve as the foundation for assessing students’ learning and as a guide for structuring concomitant learning activities aimed at facilitating student success. Purposeful alignment of assessment, learning activities and assignments with SLOs provides internal structure, transparency and coherence to a course.

Well-written SLOs are not just appended to a course syllabus in order to fulfil an administrative requirement. Rather, they serve as a gateway through which students gain knowledge about how the parts of a course relate to each other, and fit together to give them a cohesive learning experience. Therefore, the greater purpose of this infographic is to underscore the need to make SLOs thrive as the solid base for making learning and teaching transparent in course design. To do this, I present the following approaches:

  • SLOs must be written in measurable and action-oriented terms to shape assessment and learning activities.
  • Measurable SLOs consist of a verb and the condition of learning, both of which are enshrined in the cognitive process dimension and knowledge dimension of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002).
  • Developing a course map or SLOs Alignment Table reinforces the application of the principles of backward design (Wiggins &McTighe, 2005). A course map serves two purposes. First, it focuses the instructor on meeting expected SLOs. Second, it makes the alignment of SLOs, assessment and learning activities transparent and evident to students. Merely listing SLOs on a syllabus may not have the same effect (Caruana, 2015).
  • Conventionally, SLOs are presented using a linear format. Using a flowchart to represent foundational, mediating and end-of-course SLOs will orient students to how their learning experiences interconnect and build on each other (Nilson & Goodson, 2018).

The terms student learning objectives and student learning outcomes are often used interchangeably leading to the frequently-asked question: What is the difference between the two terms? Student learning objectives describe what students are expected to learn (Krathwohl, 2002). Learning outcomes exemplify what is achieved or assessed in a course (Harden, 2002). These seemingly different definitions suggest that objectives focus on aspirations for student learning while outcomes point to the essential knowledge and skills that will be achieved and assessed. In the context of transparency of learning and teaching and the attendant need for the alignment of assessment and learning activities with SLOs, learning objectives function the same way as learning outcomes.


Caruna, V. (2015). How a Course Map Puts You on Track for Better Learning Outcomes. Faculty Focus.

Dobbins, K., Brooks, S., Scott, J. J. A., Rawlinson, M., & Norman, R. I. (2016). Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: The academic perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 41(7), 1217-1233.

Harden, R. M. (2002). Learning outcomes and instructional objectives: Is there a difference? Medical Teacher, 24(2), 151-155.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 212-218.

Maher, A. (2004). Learning outcomes in higher education: Implications for curriculum design and student learning. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education, 3(2), 46-54.

Mitchell, M. W., & Manzo, W. R. (2018). The purpose and perception of learning objectives. Journal of Political Science Education, 14(4), 456-472.

Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2018). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Join me for a lively discussion of Transparent SLOs on October 16 from 12:00-12-45 pm. Information about sparkshops is available here.

Funmi Amobi is an instructional consultant in the Center for Teaching and Learning. She provides pedagogical support to faculty through 1:1 consultations, mini workshops (Sparkshops) on teaching-related topics, dissemination of infographics on evidence-based instructional practices, and co-facilitation of faculty learning communities.

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