Posted by: Natalya Dollar | September 10, 2008

Outcomes Versus Objectives? What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between an SLO and a learning objective?

I’m going to take a stab at answering this question, but my intent is to spur further discussion rather than put this question to rest. Typically, course-level SLOs should be broader than course-level learning objectives. While objectives may list the minutiae of facts and skills that will be learned in a course, outcomes are deliberately phrased in behavioral terms (in other words, what students will actually be able to do upon successfully completing the course). In more specific terms, a particular ESL course may have upwards of 10-15 learning objectives that could be condensed into 4-7 student learning outcomes.

To illustrate, take a look at the following learning objectives from a credit advanced-level ESL writing course:

  1. Formulate ideas on a topic of choice and narrow the ideas to a single workable topic.
  2. Organize ideas into a structured format such as outlines, clusters, mapping, or graphic organizers.
  3. Write coherent, unified paragraphs in a variety of organizational patterns.

Now, we could ostensibly condense three objectives into one workable SLO statement that summarizes what students can do:

“Students will be able to employ a variety of prewriting strategies and write genre-specific coherent, cohesive paragraphs.”

So, one way to view the SLO vs. Objectives issue is to consider that objectives are statements of fact about the specific learning goals of the course, whereas the student learning outcome is simply the articulation of what a student can do now that he/she has completed the course and mastered the various objectives that were taught.

In one sense, the SLO vs. Objectives argument is like examining two sides of the same coin. Objectives often boil down to a list of content that the course will cover. Outcomes boil down to a list of behaviors that students can do once they master the objectives…Let’s continue this discussion!


  1. Sense I teach a multi-level class, I struggle with writing objectives for the class — the students are at such different places. It seems that writing SLOs will be equally difficult. Any ideas on how to do this? Do I write SLOs for each level represented in my class? If so, how do I figure out how to divide the class into levels? How do I divide the class into levels without creating the need to have multiple groups within the class, and essentially teaching multiple classes at once?

  2. Hi Rachael,

    Student learning outcomes are broad statements of ability; they’re different from daily lesson objectives. While outcomes and objectives may look similar, objectives always have more detail (e.g., student behavior, conditions, criterion for success). Outcomes are simply statements of actual skills or abilities that students will have once they complete a course or program. Outcomes are often written at the course, program, and institutional level. When writing lesson plans for your class, think about how to correlate those plans to one or more SLO statements for your class.

    In terms of addressing writing in a multilevel environment, yes it is challenging but here’s an idea: Think of one major writing task for your whole class (for example, writing a note to a child’s teacher). Then, when you teach the lesson, set up three difficulty levels for the final product. That is, your pre-level group may only be expected to write one or two sentences. Your on-level group may contain more detail and resemble a letter (with a greeting, etc.). Your above-level group should be able to write a letter with greater depth (demonstrating a depth and breadth of vocabulary). As you teach this lesson you can use your whiteboard to section off areas for pre-level, on-level, and above-level students. Any language that you feel is appropriate for a particular level can go on that part of the board. For example, maybe for the pre-level section you have a list of key vocab words. For the on-level group, you’ve got some phrases and “chunks” of language for them to use. For the above-level group, maybe you just have notes or ideas or more advanced concepts. The benefit of this technique is that students from all levels will be exposed to the language being learned by each group, thus motivating them to acquire more. Likewise, you’ll be targeting each group with level-appropriate work.

    So basically, try to teach the same lesson to the whole class, but just set different criteria for the execution of the objective for your different levels.

    Currently, there is no writing specific SLO statement for ESL Multilevel Off-Site. There is a “life skills” SLO that embeds writing tasks:

    “Ability to use written or spoken English to accomplish a wide variety of life-skills tasks in student’s local community (doctor visits, parent-teacher conferences, shopping, bank visits). (LIFE SKILLS)”

    Thus, with this level of generality, what you want to do is work to make sure that your students can all accomplish a wide variety of life-skills tasks in writing or speaking, the only difference being that students will perform these tasks with a variable level of sophistication, which is OK.

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