Writing Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes (or learning objectives) form a very powerful conceptual foundation for how a degree, program, course or lesson can be setup to ensure students learn what they need to learn. Outcomes are usually stated as clear, and measurable competencies for what a learner will be able to do once they have completed a learning experience at any level. Degrees, Programs, Courses, Units and even Lessons can have stated learning outcomes to assist in guiding how learners may achieve these goals.

*Note that some courses including MOOCs that do not need to measure student learning, and instead provide students with more reflective and transformative learning experiences may not apply to some of the principles outlined on this site.

What are Course Learning Outcomes and how are they useful?

While course aims usually refer to the instructor’s intentions internal to the course itself, course learning outcomes are usually clear and measurable descriptors of a learner achievement, usually as mastery of a skill applicable in the real world. Learning outcomes are used as a baseline to set expectations around what the student should be able to do when the course is over, and ideally, if the course contributes to professional practice, what learners can do after they graduate.

Course Learning Outcomes, in a learning or instructional design process are able to be measured in such a way that assessment tasks / assignments can collect evidence of mastery at different levels, and thus are very useful in forming the backbone of any course.

How can I write good outcomes?

Good learning outcomes should always be written from the perspective of the student, and be clear enough that students can have a good understanding of what they’ll be learning and what they’ll be able to do when the course is over, even if they currently lack domain knowledge. This helps to build motivation for the students from the outset, so they understand what they’ll be working towards. The preferred wording to use is this:

At the end of the course, you will be able to:

Traits of well-written learning outcomes

  1. Learning outcome is Measurable – can be assessed as complete/incomplete or on a scale (e.g., from 1-10; from developing to exceptional);
  2. Learning outcome is Transferable – speak to skills that can be transferred to other situations and contexts;
  3. Learning outcome is Applicable – speak to how the learner will use these skills beyond the classroom environment;
  4. Learning outcome is Realistic – speak to attainable skills, based on the course’s placement in the sequence of the program;
  5. Learning outcome is Clear – learners will be able to understand what they will be able to do, even if they currently have limited domain knowledge.

The Verb

And what is it the learner will be able to do? Many instructors start with a verb, in some cases it may be something like ‘remember’ or ‘describe’, or ‘demonstrate understanding’. These words are usually sourced from a taxonomy of learning written in 1956 by Bloom, and revised in 2001 by Anderson and Krathwohl. Common critiques of this taxonomy speak to its being published in a time when the learning sciences were just starting to explore issues around instructional design and learning itself, and that research in the field of education has advanced so much in the last 60 years, that other frameworks and model may contribute to the design of learning experiences in more meaningful ways. Regardless of the verbs that are used it is important to consider whether they are accurate for application in the real world, outside of the classroom. For example, course outcomes related to remembering certain concepts, could be expanded to consider the application of that knowledge in the workplace. As most of us do not go to work, and spend all day at our desks remembering or describing things – we apply that knowledge in very specific ways – it is important to consider that students will be wanting to apply what they learn outside of the course.

It is also useful to consider the verb in terms of its immediate context, if learners are to write something, what are they writing? If learners are to create something, what are they creating?

Samples:

At the end of this course you will be able to:

  • Write a report…
  • Critically select Learning Materials…
  • Provide feedback…
  • Teach grade 3 students…
  • Resolve a dispute…

The Application

After the verb and any associated artefacts or interventions, the next part to write is the application of that verb in context. If the verb is related to the a general scenario that exists in the future day to day work of the learner, then this can be used to flush out the outcome. More specific contexts can be used, depending on the course and its role in scaffolding learners in their achievement of Program Learning Outcomes.

Samples:

At the end of this course you will be able to:

  • Write a report detailing the sequence of events in assisting a mental health client in crisis.
  • Critically select Learning Materials for specific grade and subject for distribution in an International Baccalaureate School.
  • Provide feedback to other instructors on their facilitation of group work in different grade levels of subject area classrooms.
  • Teach grade 3 students the foundational aspects of a variety of science-related concepts.
  • Resolve a dispute between coworkers in various stages of escalation.

But what about knowledge of new concepts and theories?

These may be more appropriate to be written as Unit Learning Outcomes, which support the achievement of Course Learning Outcomes.

 

Resources

University of New South Wales Learning Outcomes Guide (PDF)

 

References

Anderson, Lorin W.; Krathwohl, David R., eds. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 978-0-8013-1903-7.

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

 


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