Writing a Learning Outcome (or Mad Libs for SA Pros)

Have you been challenged to develop a learning outcome for your department or division but were unsure how to start?  Consider the SWiBAT method for your learning outcome development and begin documenting learning as part of your assessment strategies.

Best of Mad Libs - 50 years of Mad Libs.

Student affairs professionals engage in a number of data-collecting activities, by crafting surveys, collecting attendance numbers, and creating focus groups to discuss any number of relevant issues.  But do you know and understand how to measure learning?  Or tie your learning to the divisional or institutional learning outcomes? Can you identify the evidence required to measure the learning?

These are big asks, if no one has ever taught you a model that applies in all situations. Or worse, they believed they taught you a model but one that didn’t involve learning.

Many of us who end up working in student affairs have a basic understanding of assessment.  We know that data is required to support a new idea or to stop a bad one. We are adept at using technology to capture data, through card swipes, online forms or log-ins to community engagement portals. Data is useful for demonstrating engagement, but sometimes doesn’t capture student learning in ways that ties to our departmental or divisional objectives.

Learning Outcomes Might Help You More than You Know

While this information is useful in demonstrating access and usage, and maybe even demonstrating a need for resources, they won’t demonstrate learning.  And for any professional to advance in their career, they will need to know and understand how to create and use learning outcomes.  Like, it’s the future of student affairs on the line that we need to know how to do this.

“At many institutions, campus-wide discussions of student learning focus primarily on students’ in-class activities—failing to take into account what they learn beyond the classroom. For this reason it is incumbent on student affairs to systematically assess the contributions to student learning outcomes of students’ out-of-class experiences and of student affairs to these outcomes. Student affairs professionals should also be involved in the discussions that lead to the design and implementation of campus-wide efforts to assess student learning and personal development and to use the results to improve the quality of the student experience.”

Schuh, J. and Gansemer-Topf, A. M. (2010). The Role of Student Affairs in Student Learning Assessment. Champaign, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. P. 5.  (emphasis added)

I had a supervisor early in my career teach me the importance of learning outcomes through a simple question:

Because of your program or intervention, what will students know, do, or think differently?

This was a great question to prime my learning outcome development, but it lacked a formula. One that I could use in different situations and could apply across types of learning. So I went out and found one!

Introducing SWiBAT to You and Yours

And if you were like me you’re probably asking yourself “Joseph, I am already doing assessment, like why do I need to do this kind?  Like, what is it going to do for me?  Like,  it just seems like a lot of work.”

All fair questions.  And a fair statement, too.

One way I have found to be successful is to use templates that help create learning outcomes in ways that are easy to understand and explain to others.  When I was working at a previous institution we used the SWiBAT model:

Students (who do something) Will Be Able To….


SWiBAT model, Keeling and Associates, 2007

Creating a learning outcome is really similar to crafting a Mad Lib.  No really, it is that simple to describe the process! But it’s important to identify the correct terms in order to better measure the learning and the outcomes you will use to measure the learning.

Your words matters – when you say students, do you mean undergraduate only or all students? Is it students who use your facility with a certain frequency?  Or those who attend a program once? How will they demonstrate their learning?  Will you review this information or will students self-disclose?

Not All Learning is Demonstrated the Same Way

And not all learning is demonstrated equally!  Make sure you look through and review Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains to become familiar with the six different domains that measure deeper and deeper levels of learning.


In the end, this is the a brief description about how to craft a learning outcome, but it does demonstrate that with some practice anyone can write one. Just make the time to craft one, determine your metrics for how you’ll know if someone learned, and then document the learning.  Ultimately, you’ll be contributing to the learning organization of your institution.

Skill Building Development for the Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.


Keeling, R. P., & Associates (2007). Putting Learning Reconsidered into practice: Developing and assessment student learning outcomes. Retrieved from

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