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Learning goals and objectives are a key part of instruction, informing curricular design, assessment, and learning. These goals and objectives are also applied at the programmatic level, with program learning outcomes (PLOs) providing insight into the skills that undergraduate biology programs intend for their students to master. PLOs are mandated by all major higher education accreditation agencies and play integral roles in programmatic assessment. Despite their importance, however, there have not been any prior attempts to characterize PLOs across undergraduate biology programs in the United States. Our study reveals that many programs may not be using PLOs to communicate learning goals with students. We also identify key themes across these PLOs and differences in skills listed between institution types. For example, some Vision & Change core competencies (e.g., interdisciplinary nature of science; connecting science to society; quantitative reasoning) are highlighted by a low percentage of programs, while others are shared more frequently between programs. Similarly, we find that biology programs at 4-year institutions likely emphasize PLOs relating to computational skills and research more than at 2-year institutions. We conclude by discussing implications for how to best use PLOs to support student learning, assessment, and curricular improvements.


This article was originally published in CBE—Life Sciences Education, volume 22, issue 1, in 2023.

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