How to Adapt or Build a Co-Curricular Learning Outcome Framework

Explore four popular frameworks for co-curricular learning, along with the pros and cons of designing your own.

Learning outcomes should and can be the guiding lights for every college and university’s co-curricular learning opportunities—including individual campus events, ongoing initiatives and everyday student interactions.

When it comes to selecting a co-curricular learning outcome framework for your institution, you have two routes available: design a framework from scratch or adapt an industry standard.

Let’s first review four of the most popular frameworks, each developed by reputational organizations and used by hundreds of institutions.

CAS Learning & Development Outcomes

CAS is the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education. The organization describes itself as the “pre-eminent force for promoting standards in student affairs, student services, and student development programs.” In other words, learning outcomes are their whole jam.

CAS outcomes revolve around six broad categories, called domains:

  • Knowledge acquisition, construction, integration and application
  • Cognitive complexity
  • Intrapersonal development
  • Interpersonal competence
  • Humanitarianism and civic engagement
  • Practical competence

You can learn more about the history of these domains and the skills defined within them here.

The CAS standards are perhaps the most well-known learning outcome framework out there. Yet, the broad language of each domain may go over students’ heads. So, you could consider being inspired by the framework but rewriting the domains to advertise your programs in a way that resonates better with modern learners. Stockton University and Bradley University do this well. 

The LEAP Initiative's Essential Learning Outcomes

An acronym for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, LEAP was an initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

Although the AAC&U is no longer focused on LEAP, its four Essential Learning Outcomes are still used by many institutions. Many liberal arts programs especially value these ideals, as they touch upon both co-curricular and academic learning.

The Essential Learning Outcomes are:

  • Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world
  • Intellectual and particular skills
  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Integrative and applied learning

Further details and definitions can be found here. Or check out these examples from The University of Wisconsin, Whitewater or California State University, San Marcos.


The Degree Qualifications Profile was developed by an organization with a clear, focused name: The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

DQP’s five proficiencies are:

  • Specialized knowledge
  • Broad and integrative knowledge
  • Intellectual skills
  • Applied and collaborative learning
  • Civic and global learning

As the organization puts it:

“Proficiency designates the knowledge, understanding and skill that satisfy the levels of mastery sufficient to justify the award of an academic degree. The DQP uses the term “proficiency” rather than “competency” because the DQP focuses on the degree as a whole and the continuum of learning across increasingly higher degree levels. The term “competence” describes formative attainment goals within specific learning experiences (e.g., in courses) along the path to degree-qualifying proficiencies.

The focus here is on what college graduates should know and be able to do upon earning their degrees. Although NILOA is primarily concerned with the quality of American education as overseen by academic affairs, its principles can also inform aspects of co-curricular programming. Student affairs departments may opt to use this framework in order to demonstrably align classroom education with co-curricular initiatives.

You can learn more about DQP—including its history, value, and definition of each proficiency—here. Mid Michigan College and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona also outline their use of this framework.

NACE Career Readiness Competencies

The National Association of Colleges and Employers developed its framework in order to define career readiness.

As the association puts it:

“For new college graduates, career readiness is key to ensuring successful entrance into the workforce. Career readiness is the foundation upon which a successful career is launched. Career readiness is, quite simply, the new career currency.”

The eight career readiness competencies NACE outlines are:

  • Career and self development
  • Communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Equity and inclusion
  • Leadership
  • Professionalism
  • Teamwork
  • Technology

Learn the definition and example behaviors of each competency here.

Of the four frameworks outlined here, NACE’s language most closely mirrors the desired skill sets and lingo favored by today’s employers. Thus, this language may be the most ideal for marketing your co-curricular opportunities to career-focused learners. 

Georgia Southern University and Michigan State University are two examples of institutions using this model.

Benefits of Picking an Established Framework

Choosing from these established frameworks may be made both easier and harder by the same fact: Each framework is largely promoting the same skills.

Or, as CAS even admits when comparing its domains to others:

“Similarities in themes and values are easily recognized across these resources, with word choice being the primary difference.”

So, your decision may simply come down to what approach appeals to your department—and perhaps the broader institution—the most.

To summarize:

  • CAS seeks to “promote standards to enhance opportunities for student learning and development from higher education programs and services.”
  • LEAP takes a liberal arts approach, integrating both academic and co-curricular experiences.
  • DQP is most concerned with the quality of a high education degree, emphasizing the skills and knowledge sets all graduates should develop.
  • NACE aims to define career readiness, pushing institutions and their students to develop skills valued by today’s employers.

Knowing the difference in approaches should help you pick a framework that aligns best with your mission and vision. If, for example, your institution is grounded in the liberal arts, LEAP might be an ideal fit. Or, a student affairs department that seeks to boost the quality of students’ degrees beyond classroom learning might go with DQP, and an institution that’s foremost concerned with students’ future employment may pick NACE.

One advantage of opting for a well-established framework like these four involves documentation and research. Your students likely won’t care about the history of the organizations behind each framework, nor the research methodology guiding each outcome, but institutional leadership will.

You can use each organization’s literature and language to convince your institution’s president, provost and other leaders of each outcome’s value. You can cite research to open up conversations with academic deans about co-curricular collaborations. And you find success stories from other institutions to convince your department leaders of a framework’s value.

Benefits of Designing Your Own Framework

DIYing your learning outcome framework isn’t about frivolously reinventing the wheel. There are tangible advantages to doing so.

First, it’ll challenge you and your coworkers to think deeply about what you want students to learn. It’ll require you to have honest conversations with students, explore essential skills valued by employers, dive deep into your institution’s mission and assess your current approach to student development. Using LEAP or another acronymed standard may accidentally sway you toward emphasizing skills and learning pathways that aren’t true institutional priorities nor solutions to your students’ unique needs.

Additionally, designing your own outcomes might help you increase student retention. You can work with assessment professionals, review data conducted by your office of institutional research or conduct surveys on your own to find out what skill sets help students persist at your institution. You can find gaps in student learning, which may be dragging your retention rate down, then work those gaps into learning outcomes—guiding students to acquire skills that’ll support their continued enrollment and on-time graduation.

And finally, DIYing a framework can simply be fun. You can get creative with the language, working your institution’s name, mascot, colors or slogan into each outcome. Domains such as “Think like a shark”, “Lead like a Lion,” or “Be a golden citizen” can promote school spirit and sound less intimidating to students than more traditional language.

For an example of a personalized, original framework, check out the University of South Carolina Upstate. By integrating their framework into the university’s student engagement portal, powered by Modern Campus Involve, USC Upstate is engaging students in learning outcomes right from their mobile devices.

Want to follow USC Upstate’s lead for your college or university?


Co-Curricular Frameworks for Skills Development in Student Affairs

How & Why you Need to Implement Learning Outcome Frameworks for Campus Programming

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