If you’ve begun looking at graduate programs, you may have noticed that many take great care to express the “learning outcomes” that you can expect if you choose their program. You might be thinking, “But won’t the outcome be the degree?” In one sense, yes. The degree, though, is an indicator that you have met the requirements of the program and mastered all of the learning outcomes, which are the results that you should expect after completing your courses. In other words, learning outcomes are the program’s goals.
Outcomes-based education is different from the traditional model of education. Instead of focusing on what the school provides, in terms of equipment, books and instruction, outcomes-based education focuses on how students learn: can they demonstrate what they have learned in a measurable way? In graduate education, that might mean participating in original research projects, completing internships or other practical projects that allow students to apply their knowledge and skills.
One reason that the outcomes-based model is appropriate for graduate education is that many students enter grad school with a specific career goal in mind and a desire to learn skills that they need for successful healthcare administration careers, for example. By comparing the outcomes of various programs, prospective students can determine whether the program will meet their needs and get them where they want to be.
When graduate program administrators develop learning outcomes, they focus on several areas. Some outcomes might overlap categories, but in general, these are the areas that outcomes focus on:
Knowledge. This area is the overarching theme of all learning outcomes. Knowledge outcomes refer to simple facts that anyone who is educated in the subject should know, like the history.
Comprehension. Knowing the information about your field isn’t enough. You need to understand it. Learning outcomes are designed so that students can demonstrate the ability to interpret, compare and contrast, evaluate and discuss the knowledge they gain.
Application. Once you know and understand the principles in your field, can you apply them? This is where internships or research projects play an important role in graduate education, encouraging students to apply what they have learned to real-life situations.
Analysis. In many fields, analysis is a key part of the educational program. Understanding how to explain, connect, classify or interpret data is a common expectation of successful master’s degree candidates.
Synthesis. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and it’s important for graduate students to know how to incorporate their new knowledge with their existing knowledge and experience. Synthesis-based learning outcomes require students to combine and integrate their knowledge, while also creating new ideas based on the acquired knowledge.
Evaluation. Graduate program outcomes are designed to prepare students to evaluate new information against the base of existing knowledge, and assess, draw conclusions or make recommendations.
While most programs focus on these major areas, some add in additional learning outcomes that they expect from their students, such as the ability to think critically or communicate effectively. How individual programs combine these factors varies, as do the standards of assessment for determining whether students have met the designated goals. Some programs emphasize one or two areas over others, while some place equal importance on each area.
Remember that learning outcomes are fluid, and programs might adjust them based on industry needs or trends. Again, because of the practical nature of many graduate programs, learning outcomes need to be relevant to the needs and expectations of the industry and employers. Program administrators often meet with leaders in the field to review learning outcomes and make adjustments, ensuring that their curriculum is both relevant and a good investment for students.
Outcomes-based education is a relatively new concept, but one that has revolutionized education. When you’re comparing potential graduate schools, pay attention to the goals of each program and choose one that aligns with yours. Your graduate school experience will be richer and more relevant and the chances of achieving your goals after graduation much greater.