Tools for Developing Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes should outline the most central and essential elements of a particular course or program. They will also shape assessment. As such, 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 (1) key words for the course, (2) desired types of learning, and (3) the context in which the knowledge and skills gained in the course will be used, including possible applications, provides a foundation for the development of learning outcomes.

1. Language: Articulating your outcomes

To begin the process of developing learning outcomes, it may be useful to brainstorm some key words central to the disciplinary content and generalizable skills taught in the course. In addition to the information about context and types of learning provided below, 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?

2. Educational objectives: Addressing levels of learning

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 of Educational Objectives
Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives is particularly useful because it associates particular verbs with each level of learning. Although Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchy, each type of learning can be a valuable aspect of a course. Ultimately, however, learning outcomes should focus on the “higher order thinking” found in the highest levels of the Taxonomy: analyze, evaluate, and create. Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed in 1956, and was revised in 2001 by Bloom’s colleagues, Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl. The revised Taxonomy is presented here.

For additional examples of verbs aligned with each type of learning, please see Appendix B.

Remember: recall of information
define, identify, list, name, recall, repeat, state

Understand: demonstration of comprehension
classify, describe, locate, report, restate, summarize

Apply: applying knowledge in a new context
employ, illustrate, solve, use

Analyze: supporting assertions through the use of evidence and arguments; identifying causes and patterns
compare, contrast, criticize, distinguish, examine, question, test

Evaluate: coming to a judgment on the value of information or the validity of arguments
appraise, argue, assess, defend, predict, select, support

Create: combining or grouping knowledge to come to new conclusions
assemble, collect, construct, develop, formulate, organize, propose

For an alternative taxonomy, please also see information on the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) taxonomy in Appendix C.

For more information about Bloom’s original and the revised Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, please see Appendix C.

[Information about Bloom’s revised taxonomy drawn from Anderson & Krathwohl (2001).]

Content, skills, values
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.

Some learning outcomes might articulate desired values: attitudes or beliefs that are imparted or investigated in the course of learning in a 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.

“More guidance is needed to support effective program planning and tie the goals of individual programs to the overall degree objectives…. Appropriate statements of learning objectives would help faculty with curriculum planning and ensure that our [programs of study] are coherent.” Curriculum review and renewal final report, University of Toronto Faculty of Arts & Science, p. 19.

3. Context – Connecting your outcomes

Learning outcomes help instructors and learners focus on the potential applications of the knowledge and skills gained in the course. In turn, this helps students perceive the value of their learning, and helps instructors develop appropriate assessment tools. In developing learning outcomes, some questions that allow for reflection on the context of the learning taking place in the course might include:

How does this course fit into the student’s program or curriculum?

  • 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 within which the course takes place? 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?

How does this course fit into the student’s personal or professional future?

  • 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? How can the student employ the knowledge and skills gained in the class to make his or her own life, or the lives of others, better?
  • 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?