SLO Madness

The student learning outcomes accreditors require too often reduce learning to inane, meaningless blurbs, writes Robert Shireman, which prevent the sort of quality assurance that puts student work at the center.

April 7, 2016

In a recent Century Foundation essay, I raised a concern that accreditors of traditional colleges are allowing low-quality education to go unaddressed while insisting, in a misguided attempt to prove they care about learning, that colleges engage in inane counting exercises involving meaningless phantom creatures they call student learning outcomes, or SLOs.

The approach to quality assurance I recommend, instead, is to focus not on artificially created measures but on the actual outputs from students -- the papers, tests and presentations professors have deemed adequate for students to deserve a degree.

I got a lot of positive feedback on the essay, especially, as it happens, from people involved in some of the processes I was criticizing. Peter Ewell, for example, acknowledged in an email that “the linear and somewhat mindless implementation of SLOs on the part of many accreditors is not doing anybody any good.”

This story began in the 1990s, when reformers thought they could improve teaching and learning in college if they insisted that colleges declare their specific “learning goals,” with instructors defining “the knowledge, intellectual skills, competencies and attitudes that each student is expected to gain.” The reformers’ theory was that these faculty-enumerated learning objectives would serve as the hooks that would then be used by administrators to initiate reviews of actual student work, the key to improving teaching.

That was the idea. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Not even close. Here is one example of how the mindless implementation of this idea distracts rather than contributes to the goal of improved student learning. When a team from the western accreditor, the WASC Senior College and University Commission, visited San Diego State University in 2005, it raised concerns that the school had shut down its review process of college majors, which was supposed to involve outside experts and the review of student work. Now, 10 years have passed and the most recent review by WASC (the team visit is scheduled for this month) finds there are still major gaps, with “much work to be done to ensure that all programs are fully participating in the assessment process.”

What has San Diego State been doing instead of repairing its program review process? It has been writing all of its meaningless student learning outcome blurbs that accreditors implemented largely in response to the Spellings Commission in 2006. San Diego State reported its progress in that regard in a self-review it delivered to WASC last year:

Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs) are required for all syllabi; curricular maps relating Degree Learning Outcomes (DLOs) to major required courses are now a required component for Academic Program Review; programs are being actively encouraged to share their DLOs with students and align DLOs with CLOs to provide a broader programmatic context for student and to identify/facilitate course-embedded program assessment.

All this SLO-CLO-DLO gibberish and the insane curriculum map database (really crazy, take a look) is counterproductive, giving faculty members ample ammunition for dismissing the idiocy of the whole process. The insulting reduction of learning to brief blurbs, using a bizarre system of verb-choice rules, prevents rather than leads to the type of quality assurance that has student work at the center.

The benefits of, instead, starting with student work as the unit of analysis is that it respects the unlimited variety of ways that colleges, instructors and students alike, arriving with different skill levels, engage in the curriculum.

Validating colleges’ own quality-assurance systems should become the core of what accreditors do if they want to serve as a gateway to federal funds. Think of it as an outside audit of the university’s academic accounting system.

With this approach, colleges are responsible for establishing their own systems for the occasional review of their majors and courses by outside experts they identify. Accreditors, meanwhile, have the responsibility of auditing those campus review processes, to make sure that they are comprehensive and valid, involving truly independent outsiders and the examination of student work.

SLO madness has to stop. If accreditors instead focus on the traditional program-review processes, assuring that both program reviews and audits include elements of random selection, no corner of the university can presume to be immune from scrutiny.


Robert Shireman is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former official at the U.S. Department of Education.


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