What Are Learning Outcomes?
“… think first about what is essential that students know or be able to do after the course or program – what students need to know and could make powerful use of to enhance their lives and more effectively contribute to society. We believe that such reflection will lead instructors to focus on a broad synthesis of abilities that combine knowledge, skills and values into a whole that reflects how people really use knowledge.” So, what’s a learning outcome anyway? Mark Battersby, p. 1
Learning outcomes are statements that describe the knowledge or skills students should acquire by the end of a particular assignment, class, course, or program, and help students understand why that knowledge and those skills will be useful to them. They focus on the context and potential applications of knowledge and skills, help students connect learning in various contexts, and 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.
Example of Learning Outcomes:
By the end of this course, students will be able to:
- 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
For more examples of learning outcomes, please see Appendix A.
LEARNING OUTCOMES VS. LEARNING OBJECTIVES?
The distinction between learning outcomes and learning objectives is not universally recognized, and many instructors may find that the term ‘learning outcomes’ describes what they have already understood by the term ‘learning objectives’. Some scholars make no distinction between the two terms; those who do usually suggest that learning outcomes are a subset or type of learning objective. Learning objectives, for example, may outline the material the instructor intends to cover or the disciplinary questions the class will address. By contrast, learning outcomes should focus on what the student should know and realistically be able to do by the end of an assignment, activity, class, or course. The same goals addressed by learning objectives can be equally addressed by learning outcomes, but by focusing on the application and integration of the course content from the perspective of the student, learning outcomes can more explicitly and directly address expectations for student learning.
Many instructors may find that the reflective process of developing learning outcomes is something that they have already incorporated into their course planning processes. The phrase ‘learning outcomes’ thus simply offers a more precise term for discussing the creation of learning aims and expectations that centre on application and integration of course content.
WHY DEVELOP LEARNING OUTCOMES?
“…students already know they want a degree. The challenge is to help students become highly intentional about the forms of learning and accomplishment that the degree should represent.”
College Learning for the New Global Century, AAC&U, p. 29
Learning outcomes are valuable to learners, instructors, and administrators. Mark Battersby (1999) of the Learning Outcomes Network explains that learning outcomes are more than simply several sentences appended to existing lesson plans or curricula; instead, the development of learning outcomes and their use within a unit of instruction shapes learning and assessment activities and can enhance student engagement and learning.
Because of their ability to benefit many groups in postsecondary education, the development of learning outcomes has become an increasing priority for instructors and institutions over the course of the last decade. Establishing a focus on integrated, generalizable, and transferable skills complements contemporary demands on graduates and builds a foundation for lifelong learning. As government and public attention on the products of higher education increases, learning outcomes help to define the goals and essential aspects of higher education within the institution, to students, and to the general public.
- 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 between coursework and other kinds of knowledge, enhancing student engagement.
- Students understand the conditions and goals of their assessment.
- The process of developing learning outcomes itself offers an opportunity for reflection on the content of the course in the context of its potential applications. Developing learning outcomes means that the context of the learning will always be emphasized, and courses focus 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 & ADMINISTRATORS
- In order to determine what is essential for students to know, an instructor must consider the particular course or unit in the context of future coursework and the curriculum as a whole. This contributes to the development of a coherent curriculum within a decentralized institution while maintaining instructor autonomy, 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.