National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment |

National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Occasional Paper 24 - To Imagine a Verb: The Language and Syntax of Learning Outcomes Statements


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Adelman, C. (2015, February). To imagine a verb: The language and syntax of learning outcomes statements. (Occasional Paper No. 24). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.


In NILOA’s twenty-fourth occasional paper, author Clifford Adelman explores the Language and Syntax of Learning Outcomes Statements.

Paper Abstract

This essay provides language-centered principles, guidelines and tools for writing student learning outcome statements. It is focused on syntax and semantics, and takes considerable issue with both the lack of such guidance in earlier literature and specific words, phrases, tenses, voices, and abstraction in diction levels, along with ellipses and tautologies, that one reads in extant attempts to set forth such learning outcomes. While placing the verb at the center of all student learning outcomes, it distinguishes between active and operational verbs, voting for the latter on the grounds that they are more likely to lead, naturally and logically, to assignments that allow genuine judgment of student performance, and offers, as more constructive cores of student learning outcomes, 20 sets of operational verbs corresponding to cognitive activities in which students engage and faculty seek to elicit. Lastly, it advocates strategies for involving umbrella national academic organizations and accrediting organizations in realizing its vision.

Biography of the Author

Since 2006, Cliff Adelman has been a Senior Associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, where he has specialized in international issues, with The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes (2009) being the most cited of his four major publications on Bologna and international data on higher education. Based on his Bologna work, he became one of the four authors of The Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP, 2014), and continues to serve the DQP and its discipline-based cousin, Tuning USA, as well as the international Tuning Academy, for which he has published a major article on the language of Tuning statements. Prior to Bologna , and for 27 years, Adelman was a Senior Research Analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, where he built 3 national data sets and produced 15 research Monographs and reference works, the most cited of which are Answers in the Tool Box (1999) and The Toolbox Revisited (2006), Moving Into Town—and Moving On: the Community College in the Lives of Traditional-age Students (2005), A Parallel Postsecondary Universe: the Certification System in Information Technology (2000), and Women and Men of the Engineering Path (1998). Prior his tenure at the Department, he taught at the City College of the City University of New York, in the collegiate seminar program at Yale, and at the William Paterson University of New Jersey, where he also served as associate dean for five years. He holds an A.B. from Brown University, and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. His first novel, The Russian Embassy Party, was published in April 2013.


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