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Outcomes Assessment

Goals, Outcomes, and Objectives

For the purposes of assessment and planning, the differences between goals, outcomes, and objectives need to be clarified.

> Goals, Outcomes, and Objectives

Goals, Outcomes, and Objectives: What Are the Differences?

DirectionsThe standards of both institutional and programmatic accrediting and quality assurance agencies are peppered with terminology like ‘mission,’ ‘goals,’ ‘outcomes,’ and ‘objectives.’ But what precisely do these terms mean? For the purpose of developing and implementing a comprehensive and effective outcomes assessment plan for advancing academic quality in business education, the differences between these terms need to be clarified.

The Assessment Pyramid below illustrates the general hierarchical relationships among mission, goals, outcomes, and objectives:

The Assessment Pyramid

Assessment Pyramid

This graphical visualization represents the hierarchical flow from the institutional mission at the apex of the pyramid, which provides purpose and direction for the institution as a whole, down to the mission of the academic business unit (and other academic units of the institution), and then to the broad-based goals of the business unit followed by intended outcomes and performance objectives associated with the intended outcomes.

The widening and downward flow from the institutional mission in the pyramidal structure indicates that:

  • The mission of the academic business unit flows from the institutional mission and should be consistent with and contribute to the institutional mission.
  • The broad-based goals flow from the mission of the academic business unit with multiple goals associated with the business unit’s mission and each goal relating to some aspect of the mission.
  • Intended outcomes flow from the broad-based goals with multiple intended outcomes associated with each goal.
  • Performance objectives flow from the intended outcomes with multiple objectives associated with each intended outcome.

Consequently, evidence of accomplishment of desired results at a given level in the pyramid hierarchy would then constitute evidence of accomplishment of the desired results in the level above it.

Institutional and Academic Business Unit Mission

The institutional mission statement is a concise statement that defines the general purpose of the institution as a whole, provides direction for all of its activities and operations, and guides decision making for all of its academic and non-academic functional units.

Similarly, the academic business unit mission statement provides direction for and guides decision making of the academic business unit. Furthermore, the mission of the business unit should be consistent and consonant with the institutional mission in the sense that each element of the business unit’s mission should be associated with and contribute to some aspect of the institutional mission.

GoalsBroad-Based Goals vs. Intended Outcomes

Goals and intended outcomes are similar in that they describe desired results of the various activities of the business unit and establish the foundation for assessment. The difference between the two lies in the degree of specificity and measurability.

Goals are broad, clear, and general statements of what the academic business unit intends to accomplish in terms of student learning and operational effectiveness. They describe the general aims and aspirations of the business unit and provide the general framework for determining the more specific intended outcomes for the unit. In addition, they should be consistent with the academic business unit’s mission in the sense that each broad-based goal should be associated with, contribute to, and mapped to some aspect of the unit’s mission.

The main function of the goals is to provide a link between the academic business unit’s broadly-stated mission and the more specific intended outcomes for the unit (as illustrated in the Assessment Pyramid above). The broad-based goals then become a blueprint for implementing the business unit’s mission and for developing measurable intended outcomes relating to student learning and operational effectiveness.

Goals are generally too broadly stated in order to be measurable in and of themselves. Therefore, intended outcomes need to be articulated in order to make the goals specific and to describe what the goals actually mean, i.e., in order to be able to determine the extent to which the goals have been met.

Intended outcomes are clear statements that describe in precise and measurable terms the specific, observable, and desired results pertaining to student learning and the operational effectiveness of the academic business unit. They flow from the academic business unit’s broad-based goals and represent what students must specifically learn and what the academic business unit must achieve operationally in order to accomplish these goals. Consequently, each broad-based goal will usually have multiple intended outcomes associated with it. In addition, a particular intended outcome can support or contribute to the accomplishment of more than one goal.

For information on writing intended learning outcomes, see Writing Intended Student Learning Outcomes Statements.

So, the overall differences between goals and intended outcomes can be characterized as follows:

  • Goals are broad whereas intended outcomes are specific.
  • Goals are general whereas intended outcomes are precise.
  • Goals are generally not measurable whereas intended outcomes are observable and measurable.

Example 1:

Broad-Based Student Learning Goal:

Students will understand the various environmental factors that affect business.

Associated Intended Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will be able to identify and describe the intercultural dimensions of management.
  • Students will be able to evaluate legal and ethical principles in business and apply them to organizational decision making.
  • Students will be able to explain the relevant theories and principles associated with the economic environment of business.
  • Students will be able to identify and elucidate the interrelationships between business and its social and natural environments.

Example 2:

Broad-Based Operational Goal:

The academic business will provide a supportive learning environment that fosters student success and contributes to excellence in business education.

Associated Intended Operational Outcomes:

  • The academic business unit will graduate its students in a timely manner.
  • The academic business unit will be successful in providing effective academic advising to its students.
  • The academic business unit will be successful in providing high-quality learning and technological resources to its students.
  • Faculty members in the academic business unit will incorporate innovative instructional methodologies in their classes.

GoalsIntended Outcomes vs. Performance Objectives

Once intended outcomes have been developed, the academic business unit must specify the ways in which it will measure the extent to which students and the business unit are achieving the intended outcomes. In other words, the specific instruments, tools, and metrics that will be used to assess the intended outcomes must be determined.

Whereas intended outcomes are expressed in terms of the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities that students are expected to acquire and in terms of the desired operational results of the academic business unit, performance objectives on the other hand are the desired quantifiable performance results (or performance targets) on the assessment instruments, tools, and metrics that are used to measure the intended outcomes.

So, for example, if an academic business unit has defined an intended student learning outcome relating to the global dimensions of business and is measuring this outcome with a locally-developed examination (the assessment instrument), then a performance objective on this instrument for this outcome might be that 80% or more of the students will achieve a sub-score of at least 70% on the set of examination questions dealing with the international and global dimensions of business.

Therefore, performance objectives are even more specific than intended outcomes inasmuch as they identify concrete quantitative targets for the assessment methods used to measure the achievement of the outcomes. Furthermore, each intended outcome should be capable of being measured by more than one assessment method, and would therefore have multiple performance objectives associated with it.

For additional information about measures of student learning, see Student Learning Assessment Measures.

Summing Up

The answer to the question as to what constitutes the differences between mission, goals, outcomes, and objectives lies in their level of specificity and measurability. As we move downward along the Assessment Pyramid, we progress from the broad and general to the narrow and specific. Intended outcomes and performance objectives provide the necessary degree of specificity and measurability required in order to determine the extent of student learning, operational effectiveness, and mission accomplishment. These relationships are illustrated in the Inverted Assessment Pyramid below:

The Inverted Assessment Pyramid

Inverted Assessment Pyramid

For more information on the IACBE’s requirements pertaining to goals, intended outcomes, and performance objectives, see Key Content Areas of an Outcomes Assessment Plan.

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