Developing Learning Outcomes

Table of Contents

Learning outcomes are statements that describe the knowledge or skills students should acquire by the end of a particular assignment, class, course, or program. They help students:

  • understand why that knowledge and those skills will be useful to them
  • focus on the context and potential applications of knowledge and skills
  • connect learning in various contexts
  • help guide assessment and evaluation

Good learning outcomes emphasize the application and integration of knowledge. Instead of focusing on coverage of material, learning outcomes articulate how students will be able to employ the material, both in the context of the class and more broadly.

Consider using approximately five to ten learning outcomes per assignment; this number allows the learning outcomes to cover a variety of knowledge and skills while retaining a focus on essential elements of the course.

Learn how you can add learning outcomes to your Quercus course.

Examples of Learning Outcomes

For reference, Bloom’s Taxonomy of relevant active verbs.

  • identify and describe the political, religious, economic, and social uses of art in Italy during the Renaissance
  • identify a range of works of art and artists
    analyze the role of art and of the artist in Italy at this time
  • analyze the art of the period according to objective methods
  • link different materials and types of art to the attitudes and values of the period
  • evaluate and defend their response to a range of art historical issues
  • provide accurate diagrams of cells and be able to classify cells from microscopic images
  • identify and develop data collection instruments and measures for planning and conducting sociological research
  • identify and classify their spending habits and prepare a personal budget
  • predict the appearance and motion of visible celestial objects
  • formulate scientific questions about the motion of visible celestial objects
  • plan ways to model and/or simulate an answer to the questions chosen
  • select and integrate information from various sources, including electronic and print resources, community resources, and personally collected data, to answer the questions chosen
    communicate scientific ideas, procedures, results, and conclusions using appropriate SI units, language, and formats
  • describe, evaluate, and communicate the impact of research and other accomplishments in space technology on our understanding of scientific theories and principles and on other fields of endeavour
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to categorize macroeconomic policies according to the economic theories from which they emerge.
  • By the end of this unit, students will be able to describe the characteristics of the three main types of geologic faults (dip-slip, transform, and oblique) and explain the different types of motion associated with each.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to ask questions concerning language usage with confidence and seek effective help from reference sources.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to analyze qualitative and quantitative data, and explain how evidence gathered supports or refutes an initial hypothesis.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to work cooperatively in a small group environment.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to identify their own position on the political spectrum.

Specific Language

Learning outcomes should use specific language, and should clearly indicate expectations for student performance.

Vague Outcome: By the end of this course, students will have added to their understanding of the complete research process.

More Precise Outcome: By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • describe the research process in social interventions
  • evaluate critically the quality of research by others
  • formulate research questions designed to test, refine, and build theories
  • identify and demonstrate facility in research designs and data collection strategies that are most appropriate to a particular research project
  • formulate a complete and logical plan for data analysis that will adequately answer the research questions and probe alternative explanations
  • interpret research findings and draw appropriate conclusions

Vague Outcome: By the end of this course, students will have a deeper appreciation of literature and literary movements in general.

More Precise Outcome: By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • identify and describe the major literary movements of the 20th century
  • perform close readings of literary texts
  • evaluate a literary work based on selected and articulated standards

For All Levels

Learning outcomes are useful for all levels of instruction, and in a variety of contexts.

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • identify the most frequently encountered endings for nouns, adjectives and verbs, as well as some of the more complicated points of grammar, such as aspect of the verb
  • translate short unseen texts from Czech
  • read basic material relating to current affairs using appropriate reference works, where necessary
  • make themselves understood in basic everyday communicative situations

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • identify key measurement problems involved in the design and evaluation of social interventions and suggest appropriate solutions
  • assess the strengths and weaknesses of alternative strategies for collecting, analyzing and interpreting data from needs analyses and evaluations in direct practice, program and policy interventions
  • identify specific strategies for collaborating with practitioners in developmental projects, formulation of research questions, and selection of designs and measurement tools so as to produce findings usable by practitioners at all levels
  • analyze qualitative data systematically by selecting appropriate interpretive or quantified content analysis strategies
  • evaluate critically current research in social work
  • articulate implications of research findings for explanatory and practice theory development and for practice/program implementation
  • instruct classmates and others in an advanced statistical or qualitative data analysis procedure

By the end of the course you will be able to:

  • identify several learning style models and know how to use these models in your teaching
  • construct and use learning objectives
  • design a course and a syllabus
  • implement the principles of Universal Instructional Design in the design of a course
  • use strategies and instructional methods for effective teaching of small classes and large classes
  • identify the advantages and disadvantages of different assessment methods
  • construct a teaching portfolio

Why Develop Learning Outcomes?

For students:

  • By focusing on the application of knowledge and skills learned in a course and on the integration of knowledge and skills with other areas of their lives, students are more connected to their learning and to the material of the course.
  • The emphasis on integration and generalizable skills helps students draw connections between courses and other kinds of knowledge, enhancing student engagement.
  • Students understand the conditions and goals of their assessment.

For instructors:

  • Developing learning outcomes allows for reflection on the course content and its potential applications, focusing on the knowledge and skills that will be most valuable to the student now and in the future.
  • Learning outcomes point to useful methods of assessment.
  • Learning outcomes allow instructors to set the standards by which the success of the course will be evaluated.

For institutions and administrators:

  • When an instructor considers the particular course or unit in the context of future coursework and the curriculum as a whole, it  contributes to the development of a coherent curriculum within a decentralized institution and helps to ensure that students are prepared for future work and learning.
  • The application and integration of learning emphasized by learning outcomes reflect and support the contemporary nature and priorities of the university, enhancing student engagement, uncovering opportunities for interdisciplinary, and providing guidance and support for students with many different kinds of previous academic preparation.
  • Learning outcomes provide structures from which courses and programs can be evaluated and can assist in program and curricular design, identify gaps or overlap in program offerings, and clarify instructional, programmatic, and institutional priorities.

Context of Learning

In developing learning outcomes, first consider the context of the learning taking place in the course might include:

  • If the course is part of the major or specialization, what knowledge or skills should students have coming into the course? What knowledge or skills must they have by its conclusion in order to proceed through their program?
  • How can this course contribute to the student’s broad learning and the student’s understanding of other subjects or disciplines?
  • What are the priorities of the department or Faculty? How does the particular focus of the course contribute to those broader goals?
  • Does the course play a particular role within the student’s program (introductory, elective, summative)? How is the course shaped by this role?
  • What knowledge or skills gained in this course will serve students throughout their lives? How will the class shape the student’s general understanding of the world?
  • Which careers commonly stem from education in this field? What are the skills or knowledge essential to these careers?
  • What kinds of work are produced in those careers?
  • How can this course enrich a student’s personal or professional life?
  • Where will the student encounter the subject matter of the course elsewhere in his or her life? In what situations might the knowledge or skills gained in the course be useful to the student?

Tools for Developing Learning Outcomes

The process of developing learning outcomes offers an opportunity for reflection on what is most necessary to help learners gain this knowledge and these skills. Considering the following elements as you prepare your learning outcomes.

To begin the process of developing learning outcomes, it may be useful to brainstorm some key words central to the disciplinary content and skills taught in the course. You may wish to consider the following questions as you develop this list of key words:

  • What are the essential things students must know to be able to succeed in the course?
  • What are the essential things students must be able to do to succeed in the course?
  • What knowledge or skills do students bring to the course that the course will build on?
  • What knowledge or skills will be new to students in the course?
  • What other areas of knowledge are connected to the work of the course?

Scholars working in pedagogy and epistemology offer us taxonomies of learning that can help make learning outcomes more precise. These levels of learning can also help develop assessment and evaluation methods appropriate to the learning outcomes for the course.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) Taxonomy

These three areas can be used to identify and describe different aspects of learning that might take place in a course.

Content can be used to describe the disciplinary information covered in the course. This content might be vital to future work or learning in the area. A learning outcome focused on content might read:

By the end of this course, students will be able recall the 5 major events leading up to the Riel Rebellion and describe their role in initiating the Rebellion.

Skills can refer to the disciplinary or generalizable skills that students should be able to employ by the conclusion of the class. A learning outcome focused on skills might read:

By the end of this course, students will be able to define the characteristics and limitations of historical research.

Values can describe some desired learning outcomes, the attitudes or beliefs imparted or investigated in a particular field or discipline. In particular, value-oriented learning outcomes might focus on ways that knowledge or skills gained in the course will enrich students’ experiences throughout their lives. A learning outcome focused on values might read:

By the end of this course, students will be able to articulate their personal responses to a literary work they have selected independently.

Characteristics of Good Learning Outcomes

Good learning outcomes are very specific, and use active language – and verbs in particular – that make expectations clear and ensure that student and instructor goals in the course are aligned.

Where possible, avoid terms, like understand or demonstrate, that can be interpreted in many ways.

See the Bloom’s Taxonomy resource for a list of useful verbs.

Vague Outcome: By the end of the course, I expect students to increase their organization, writing, and presentation skills.

More precise outcome: By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • produce professional quality writing
  • effectively communicate the results of their research findings and analyses to fellow classmates in an oral presentation

Vague Outcome: By the end of this course, students will be able to use secondary critical material effectively and to think independently.

More precise outcome: By the end of this course, students will be able to evaluate the theoretical and methodological foundations of secondary critical material and employ this evaluation to defend their position on the topic.

Keep in mind, learning outcomes:

  • should be flexible: while individual outcomes should be specific, instructors should feel comfortable adding, removing, or adjusting learning outcomes over the length of a course if initial outcomes prove to be inadequate
  • are focused on the learner: rather than explaining what the instructor will do in the course, good learning outcomes describe knowledge or skills that the student will employ, and help the learner understand why that knowledge and those skills are useful and valuable to their personal, professional, and academic future
  • are realistic, not aspirational: all passing students should be able to demonstrate the knowledge or skill described by the learning outcome at the conclusion of the course. In this way, learning outcomes establish standards for the course
  • focus on the application and integration of acquired knowledge and skills: good learning outcomes reflect and indicate the ways in which the described knowledge and skills may be used by the learner now and in the future
  • indicate useful modes of assessment and the specific elements that will be assessed: good learning outcomes prepare students for assessment and help them feel engaged in and empowered by the assessment and evaluation process
  • offer a timeline for completion of the desired learning

Each assignment, activity, or course might usefully employ between approximately five and ten learning outcomes; this number allows the learning outcomes to cover a variety of knowledge and skills while retaining a focus on essential elements of the course.

  • Speak to the learner: learning outcomes should address what the learner will know or be able to do at the completion of the course
  • Measurable: learning outcomes must indicate how learning will be assessed
  • Applicable: learning outcomes should emphasize ways in which the learner is likely to use the knowledge or skills gained
  • Realistic: all learners who complete the activity or course satisfactorily should be able to demonstrate the knowledge or skills addressed in the outcome
  • Time-bound: the learning outcome should set a deadline by which the knowledge or skills should be acquired;
  • Transparent: should be easily understood by the learner; and
  • Transferable: should address knowledge and skills that will be used by the learner in a wide variety of contexts

The SMART(TT) method of goal setting is adapted from Blanchard, K., & Johnson, S. (1981). The one minute manager. New York: Harper Collins

Assessment: Following Through on Learning Outcomes

Through assessment, learning outcomes can become fully integrated in course design and delivery. Assignments and exams should match the knowledge and skills described in the course’s learning outcomes. A good learning outcome can readily be translated into an assignment or exam question; if it cannot, the learning outcome may need to be refined.

One way to match outcomes with appropriate modes of assessment is to return to Bloom’s Taxonomy. The verbs associated with each level of learning indicate the complexity of the knowledge or skills that students should be asked to demonstrate in an assignment or exam question.

For example, an outcome that asks students to recall key moments leading up to an historical event might be assessed through multiple choice or short answer questions. By contrast, an outcome that asks students to evaluate several different policy models might be assessed through a debate or written essay.

Learning outcomes may also point to more unconventional modes of assessment. Because learning outcomes can connect student learning with its application both within and outside of an academic context, learning outcomes may point to modes of assessment that parallel the type of work that students may produce with the learned knowledge and skills in their career or later in life.

Unit of Instruction (e.g. lecture, activity, exam, course, workshop) and Assessment Examples

Course, Program, Institution: Connecting Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes can also be implemented at the program or institutional level to assess student learning over multiple courses, and to monitor whether students have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills at one stage to be able to move onto the next.

Courses that require prerequisites may benefit from identifying a list of outcomes necessary for advancement from one level to another. When this knowledge and these skills are identified as outcomes as opposed to topics, assessment in the first level can directly measure preparation for the next level.

Many major and specialist programs identify a list of discipline-specific and multi-purpose skills, values, and areas of knowledge graduating students in the program will have. By articulating these as things that students will know or be able to do, the benefits of a program of study can be clearly communicated to prospective students, to employers, and to others in the institution.

Athabasca University developed learning outcomes for all its undergraduate major programs. Please see their Anthropology BA learning outcomes as an example.

Academic plans increasingly include a list of learning outcomes that apply across programs of study and even across degree levels. These outcomes provide an academic vision for the institution, serve as guidelines for new programs and programs undergoing review, and communicate to members of the university and the public at large the academic values and goals of the university. As previously discussed, the best learning outcomes address course-specific learning within the context of a student’s broader educational experience. One way to contribute to a coherent learning experience is to align course outcomes, when appropriate, with institutional priorities.

The University of Toronto’s academic plan, Stepping Up: A framework for academic planning at the University of Toronto, 2004-2010, outlines institutional goals in relation to the learning experience of our undergraduate and graduate students. These priorities are further articulated in “Companion Paper 1: Enabling Teaching and Learning and the Student Experience”. The skills outcomes meant to apply to all undergraduate programs follow.

  • knowing what one doesn’t know and how to seek information
  • able to think: that is, to reason inductively and deductively, to analyze and to synthesize, to think through moral and ethical issues, to construct a logical argument with appropriate evidence
  • able to communicate clearly, substantively, and persuasively both orally and in writing
  • able not only to answer questions through research and analysis but to exercise judgment about which questions are worth asking
    knowledgeable about and committed to standards of intellectual honesty and use of information
  • knowing how to authenticate information, whether it comes from print sources or through new technologies
  • able to collaborate with others from different disciplines in the recognition that multidisciplinary approaches are necessary to address the major issues facing society
  • understanding the methods of scientific inquiry; that is, scientifically literate

Curriculum Mapping: Translating between local and global learning outcomes

At the global program or institutional level, learning outcomes are often necessarily vague to allow for flexibility in their implementation and assessment. Consequently, in order to be effectively applied at the local level of a course or class, they must be reformulated for the particular setting. Similarly, learning outcomes from individual courses may be extrapolated and generalized in order to create program or institution-wide learning outcomes.

Both of these processes are most frequently accomplished through a technique called “curriculum mapping”. When moving from programmatic or institutional to course or class outcomes, curriculum mapping involves identifying which courses, portions of courses, or series of courses fulfill each programmatic or institutional learning outcome.

The global learning outcomes can then be matched with course-specific outcomes that directly address the content and skills required for that particular subject material. Identifying and locating all the learning outcomes encountered by a student over the course of their program can help present learning as a coherent whole to students and others, and can help students make the connection between their learning in one course and that in another. Maki (2004) notes that understanding where particular pieces of learning take place can help students take charge of their own education:

A map reveals the multiple opportunities that students have to make progress on collectively agreed-on learning goals, beginning with their first day on campus. Accompanied by a list of learning outcomes, maps can encourage students to take responsibility for their education as a process of integration and application, not as a checklist of courses and educational opportunities. Maps can also position students to make choices about courses and educational experiences that will contribute to their learning and improve areas of weakness.

For more information about and examples of curriculum mapping, please see Maki, P. (2004). Maps and inventories: Anchoring efforts to track student learning. About Campus 9(4), 2-9.

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