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Articulate Student Learning Objectives

Student Learning Objectives for Graduate Programs

Graduate programs also need to develop student learning objectives.

Although the process for developing learning objectives for graduate programs is similar to undergraduate programs, there are some specific considerations.

Defining Learning Objectives for the PhD and Masters Levels*

Doctoral Programs (from the Council of Graduate Schools Meaning of the Ph.D.):

"As a scholar, a well prepared doctoral student...

  • Can discover, integrate, and apply knowledge
  • Understand and critically evaluate the literature of the field
  • Apply appropriate principles and procedures to the recognition, evaluation, interpretation, and understanding of issues and problems at the frontiers of knowledge.
  • Can communicate and disseminate knowledge
  • Is aware of and committed to the ethical practices appropriate to the field"

Masters Degrees

The recipient of an academic masters degree is understood to...

  • possess knowledge of a broad field of learning that extends well beyond that attained at the undergraduate level,
  • but is not necessarily expected to have made a significant, original contribution to knowledge in that field.

Strategies for Distinguishing Masters & PhD Outcomes

  1. Masters and Ph.D. outcomes are distinguished by language pointing to differences in levels of attainment/proficiency, but are otherwise are the same.
  2. Masters and Ph.D. outcomes have same language, with levels of achievement/proficiency differentiated through degree rubrics, i.e., faculty would be satisfied with lower levels of performance on the rubric by the Masters students.
  3. Masters outcomes are a subset of Ph.D. outcomes, with levels of achievement/proficiency differentiated through degree rubrics.

Example One: U.C. Merced's EECS degrees

  1. Ph.D. Are able to identify novel and significant open research questions in electrical engineering and computer science …..
  2. M.S. Are able to conduct supervised research in electrical engineering and computer science …..

Example Two: U.C.Merced Sociology MA and PhD SLOs

Note: Bold face font is for PhD program only. Regular font is for both programs; the expected level on the rubrics discriminate between the two levels.

Upon completion of a Sociology MA/Ph.D., graduates will be able to...

  1. Synthesize, critique, apply, and extend major sociological theories.
  2. Critique and evaluate qualitative and quantitative sociological research methods.
  3. Design and conduct independent research that makes an original contribution to sociological knowledge.
  4. Synthesize, critique, and identify extensions to previous empirical and theoretical work in at least two substantive areas of the discipline.
  5. Communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, about sociological theories, arguments, methods, and concepts.
  6. Demonstrate proficiency in the professional skills needed to participate in the intellectual and organizational aspects of sociological careers.

* Material originated with Laura Martin for sharing the materials below and was edited by Mary Allen for a WASC ALA handout. The material was originally developed for a presentation at the 2014 ARC, Integrating Learning Outcomes and Assessment into Graduate Research Programs: Enriching Traditional Metrics of Success (Laura Martin, Karen Myers, and Chris Cullander).

Also cited: Council of Graduate Schools: Meaning of PhD (2005 CGS Task Force on the Doctor of Philosophy Degree (2005). Doctor of Philosophy Degree: A Policy Statement. D. D. Denecke (Ed.), Council of Graduate Schools, Washington, DC.)

Example Three: from UC Irvine (2011) Guideline for graduate program learning outcomes and evaluation.

Note: This informative document can be accessed in its entirety on the web


The following graduate program learning outcome (PLOs) examples are designed with the goal of placing graduated master's or doctoral students into post-degree and tenure-track (as appropriate) positions in competitive research universities, careers in secondary education, non-profits, business and consulting, government and private agencies conducting research and other fields that draw on research and teaching skills of these graduates in the focused area of their graduate preparation. For example, the areas could include:

  • PLO 1 - Core Knowledge: graduate students will demonstrate advanced knowledge in a specialized area consistent with the focus of their graduate program. 
  • PLO 2 - Research Methods and Analysis: graduate students will demonstrate quantitative and qualitative skills in the use of data gathering methods and data analysis techniques used for typical analyses in conducting research that is consistent with the focus of their graduate program. 
  • PLO 3 - Pedagogy: graduate students will participate in classroom pedagogy consistent with undergraduate education in the associated major. 
  • PLO 4 - Scholarly Communication: graduate students will produce written and oral communications of quality, as consistent with the focus of their graduate program.
  • PLO 5 - Professionalism: graduate students will know and participate in the intellectual and organizational aspects of the profession as applicable to the major area of study including the ethical conduct of research. 
  • PLO 6 - Independent Research: graduate students will conduct independent research resulting in an original contribution to knowledge in the focused areas of their graduate program. 

Verbs for Learning Objectives

Bloom's Taxonomy is a useful tool for characterizing the type and level of learning objective the program wishes to foster.