Learning outcomes can be defined as the particular knowledge, skills, and abilities that an instructor intends for students to learn or develop. Outcomes are more specific than learning goals, which take a 10,000-foot view of what an instructor desires for students to gain from a course. Research suggests that when they are well written, clear, and measurable, learning outcomes can improve learning and motivate student engagement.
Research shows that learning outcomes improve learning when they describe specific, measurable takeaways (Richmond et. al, 2016). The Backward Design process helps achieve these outcomes through alignment, where learning outcomes are written first during course development to serve as a framework from which all class activities and assessments are selected or designed (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). Once outcomes are mapped backward to activities and forward to larger learning goals, instructors can consider assessments, both weekly and final, that measure student progress toward attaining learning outcomes.
Learning goals and outcomes can be written for entire courses as well as for individual classes. They are generally written with an action verb such as “define,” “synthesize,” or “create,” and a noun describing specific content, concepts, or skills.
|Discipline||Course||Sample Learning Goal||Sample Learning Outcomes|
|Humanities||American History||Students will develop a broader knowledge of American history||
Students will be able to describe the colonization of the Americas by the British, French and Spanish
Students will be able to analyze the outcomes of the Civil War
|Social Sciences||Cognitive Psychology||Students will understand human language acquisition||
Students will be able to identify specific stages of language acquisition
Students will be able to describe major theories of language development (e.g. nativist, empiricist, interactionist, behaviorist, cognitive)
Students will be able to articulate gaps within theories of human language acquisition
|Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM)||Independent Study in Chemistry||Students will develop discipline-specific research skills||
Students will be able to design a controlled experiment
Students will be able to collect and analyze research data
Students will be able to disseminate research findings in written form
Students will be able to verbally present research findings
- Follow the A-B-C-D Guide - A-B-C-D stands for Audience, Behavior, Condition, and Degree, and describes the major components of an intended learning outcome. Instructors can develop learning outcomes by following the A-B-C-D guide. Audience describes the intended learners of a given outcome (typically “Students”). Behavior is a verb describing understanding, cognitive growth, or a skill that learners will develop (“explain,” “analyze,” “create”). Condition describes physical and temporal features of the outcome (“within,” “undergirding,” “verbally,” “by the end of term”). Degree describes the level of attainment (“independently,” “fully”).
- Design Learning Outcomes at Multiple Levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy - Depending on the learning goals of a course, instructors can consider writing learning outcomes that span multiple levels of cognition delineated through the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002). The lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, “Remembering,” focuses on student recall of information, while the highest, “Creating,” addresses how students can synthesize multiple elements to develop a new idea or product. To encourage higher-order thinking, instructors can consider designing outcomes beyond the “Remembering” and “Understanding” levels. Descriptions of each level are delineated below alongside sample action verbs for each level. See also Bloom’s Taxonomy.
|Bloom’s Level||Description (from Krathwohl, 2002)||Sample Action Verbs|
|Remembering (lowest-order)||Students can retrieve relevant information from their long-term memory||list, define, describe, recall, label, match, observe, identify, reproduce|
|Understanding||Students can determine the meaning of instructional messages, including oral, written and graphic communication||explain, describe, interpret, paraphrase, classify, restate, summarize, express, generalize, recognize|
|Applying||Students can carry out our use a procedure in a given situation||apply, choose, predict, use, illustrate, demonstrate, hypothesize, modify, interpret, develop|
|Analyzing||Students can break material into its constituent parts and detect how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose||contrast, distinguish, test, differentiate, categorize, compare, analyze, research, examine, criticize, experiment, map, separate|
|Evaluating||Students can make a judgment based on criteria and standards||evaluate, judge, predict, argue, persuade, convince, grade, recommend, rank, select|
|Creating (highest-order)||Students can put elements together to form a novel, coherent whole or make an original product||develop, create, design, construct, synthesize, compose, conjecture, formulate, imagine, invent|
- Share and Revisit Learning Goals and Outcomes with Students - As learning goals and outcomes serve as a framework for the course, instructors should share them on Course Syllabi and refer to them throughout the semester. In addition, learning outcomes can be shared at the beginning of class, and revisited at the end of class.
- Ask Students About Their Intended Learning Outcomes - Research indicates that students respond positively to questions about their own goals for learning or taking a particular class (Ambrose 2010). Instructors can engage students in questions about their learning in the first class session, and discuss ways to align their goals with intended learning outcomes.
- Monitor Student Progression in Achieving Outcomes - Develop ways to assess whether students are working towards particular outcomes. In addition to essays, quizzes, and exams, Formative Assessments such as Think-Pair-Share, One-minute Papers, Clicker Questions, and general questions posed to the class can help instructors monitor student progression towards achieving learning outcomes, and modify instruction as needed.
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Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research – Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dirks C, Wendroth MP, Withers M. (2014). Assessment in the College Classroom. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Krathwhol DR. (2002). A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview. Theory Into Practice 41(4): 212- 218.
Richmond, A., Boysen, G., and Gurung, R. (2016). An Evidence-based Guide to College and University Teaching. New York: Routledge.
Wiggins GP, McTighe J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Moorabbin, Vic: Hawker Brownlow Education.