Student Learning Outcome (SLO) Coordinators in the California Community Colleges face the herculean task of coordinating SLO and assessment activities on their local campuses while understanding the larger context of their work and its impact on planning, program review, accreditation, and ultimately, student learning. SLO Coordinators attending the SLO Institute, the SLO Regional meetings, and the Accreditation Institute have ample opportunities to dialog with each other and often discover that they share similar concerns, particularly in imparting the intricacies of those discussions and the issues to the faculty and others back on their local campuses.
An example of how one local college is handling one of those intricate issues, the difference between SLOs and grades, is through a campus newsletter.
Grades versus SLOs
By Joan Sholars, Mt. San Antonio College SLO Coordinator
December 2009 Whitepaper
A grade provides an overall picture of how a student performed in the entirety of the course. It does not indicate how well a student obtained various skills and concepts. Whereas grades are meant to be student-specific, SLOs are meant to be skill-specific (http://www.mtsac.edu/instruction/outcomes/doc/glossary.pdf, page 11, #8).
It is very difficult to trace back the learning of specific skills from a general grade. For example, if a student earns a “B” in the course, it is not possible to determine which skills or topics within the course were grasped well by the student simply by looking at the grade the student earned. Different faculty members teaching the same course could vary in the way they measure the combination of the different skills to produce the grade. For instance, Professor A might count the research paper for that course as 20% of the student’s overall grade, while Professor B might count the research paper for that course as 15% of the student’s overall grade.
If that same research paper was used to assess an SLO, the faculty would score the skills that the faculty determined important on a faculty-developed rubric. The faculty would have been normed on the rubric. [For information on norming, go to http://www.mtsac.edu/instruction/outcomes/newsletter/whitepapers/2009_a….] Consequently, a student could earn an “A” in the course, but have scored only a 3 out of 4 on a faculty-developed rubric.
Grades are student-specific. In contrast, SLOs are meant to be skill-specific. Instead of how many students received A’s or B’s in the course, the SLO question is how many of them were able to demonstrate a specific skill central to the course? SLOs focus on how students perform in particular skills that are taught in a course instead of the overall performance. Moreover, they are intended to determine what students would get out of a course regardless of which section they selected or which faculty member they had. Thus the SLO should be at the course-level (e.g., ENGL 1A SLO) not at the classroom- or section-level (e.g., ENGL 1A Reference #999999 SLO).
Another example comes from the Mathematics Department. About 53% of MATH 51 students pass the course, but based on the department’s SLO data, about 85% of MATH 51 students can solve a linear equation. From this example, we can see that just because a student can perform a specific skill as measured by the SLOs does not mean that the student can pass the class.
Of course, a student could also pass the class with a grade of “C” or better and not have performed well on the SLO that was being assessed that semester. That means that the student has enough knowledge of the material in the course that earns the student a passing grade in the class, but when one skill is looked at in depth, the student does not perform well.
Grades are holistic measures of multiple skills. Grades provide feedback to the student on their overall performance but do not pinpoint which skills need improvement.
SLOs are distinct measures of specific skills. SLOs provide feedback on student learning of the specific skills and pinpoint which skills need improvement.
If you have any questions or need further information about Grades and SLOs, please contact me at jsholars [at] mtsac.edu or at Extension 4610.
This newsletter is one example of an effective local practice in helping the college community reach a common understanding on the differences between grades and SLOs within the context of the campus culture. This practice can be documented down the road for accreditation while also establishing the college’s overall definition and application of the terms it uses, including grades and SLOs. Also, the more widespread the information, increasing numbers of individuals on the campus are made aware of the issues involved.
Does your college have ways of sharing SLO information with your campus community? If so, please pass them along to kawaguchi_lesley [at] smc.edu. We would like to share these from time to time in the appropriate venue.