Student Outcomes


The term student outcomes typically refers to either (1) the desired learning objectives or standards that schools and teachers want students to achieve, or (2) the educational, societal, and life effects that result from students being educated. In the first case, student outcomes are the intended goals of a course, program, or learning experience; in the second case, student outcomes are the actual results that students either achieve or fail to achieve during their education or later on in life. The terms learning outcomes and educational outcomes are common synonyms.

While the term student outcomes is widely and frequently used by educators, it may be difficult to determine precisely what is being referred to when the term is used without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation. When investigating or reporting on student outcomes, it is important to determine precisely how the term is being defined in a specific educational context. In some cases, for example, the term may be used in a general or undefined sense (“Our school is working to improve student outcomes”), while in others it may have a specific pedagogical or technical meaning (“The student outcomes for this course are X, Y, and Z”).

The following representative examples illustrate the different ways in which the term student outcomes may be used:

  • Positive and negative outcomes: Generally speaking, student outcomes are considered—either explicitly or implicitly—to be positive or negative by educators. If students are learning what they are expected to learn, or graduation rates in a school are rising, these results would generally be viewed as “positive student outcomes.” Conversely, low or declining test scores and high dropout rates would be “negative student outcomes.”
  • Instructional outcomes: Schools and teachers may define student outcomes as the knowledge, skills, and habits of work that students are expected to acquire by the end of an instructional period, such as a course, program, or school year. In this sense, the term may be synonymous with learning objectives or learning standards, which are brief written statements that describe what students should know and be able to do. Teachers often establish instructional goals for a course, project, or other learning experience, and those goals may then be used to guide what and how they teach (a process that is sometimes called “backwards planning” or “backward design”). While the term student outcomes may be used in this sense, terms such as learning objective and learning target are more common.
  • Educational outcomes: The results achieved by schools may also be considered “student outcomes” by educators and others, including results such as standardized-test scores, graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates. In this sense, the term may be synonymous with student achievement, since achievement typically implies education-specific results such as improvements in test scores.
  • Societal and life outcomes: In some cases, the term student outcomes, and synonyms such as educational outcomes, may imply broader, more encompassing, and more far-reaching educational results, including the impact that education has on individuals and society. For example, higher employment rates, lower incarceration rates, better health, reduce dependency on social services, and increased civic participation—e.g., higher voting rates, volunteerism rates, or charitable giving—have all been correlated with better education.
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