(OMSW) Developing Learning Outcomes

Introduction: Developing Learning Outcomes

As the central element of course alignment that everything else connects to, learning outcomes just might be the most important piece of course design. They are also often the hardest aspect to develop, although once you get used to writing them, we promise it becomes a much easier task.

Before we address how to write learning outcomes, let's first review what they are and then discuss how you go about defining them.

Photo by Matthew D'Agostino, University of Maryland Baltimore

What are Learning Outcomes?

As you may have gathered from reviewing our IDEA Knowledgebase information on the course design process, in course design and development, we generally have two sets of learning outcomes: those at the course level and those at the module (or week) level.

Course-level learning outcomes are a set of broad outcomes that indicate what students should be able to achieve after having completed a course.

In contrast, module-level or week-level learning outcomes are more granular or specific, and break down these larger sets of outcomes into what students should be able to achieve after each module or week of the course.

Learning outcomes are always student-centered, meaning that they're focused on the student's perspective. This is why they are often set up with a phrase like, "Students should be able to" and begin with verbs that indicate an action a student can carry out.

Read this article from the Center for Teaching and Learning at DePaul University for more information about learning outcomes, particularly how they are discerned from goals and objectives: Course Objectives & Learning Outcomes.

For the alignment aspect of course design, regardless of whether there is a set of learning objectives or goals as well, we always use course-level and module-level learning outcomes, because they are both student-centered and measurable.

Defining Learning Outcomes

When setting out to define the learning outcomes for your course and for individual modules/weeks of the course, it helps to keep in mind that there are three types of outcomes:

  • Cognitive, based in knowledge

  • Behavioral, based in skills

  • Affective, based in feeling, values, or attitudes

Asking yourself the questions What should students know? What skills should they have? What attitudes and values should they exhibit? will help you discern and thus define these different types of outcomes.

It's also essential (and considered best practice) to identify the levels or dimensions of knowledge and cognitive processes that drive your learning outcomes. (Note that doing this is not limited to cognitive outcomes by any means; it applies even if your outcomes are behavioral or affective.)

Based on Bloom's Revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwol, 2001), this graphic illustrates the intersections of what's called the Knowledge Dimension and the Cognitive Process Dimension. Both of these dimensions are tiered, with the Knowledge Dimension progressing from factual knowledge to metacognitive knowledge, and the Cognitive Process Dimension progressing from what is generally thought of as lower-order to higher-order skills. Using this taxonomy to define your learning outcomes gives you a tool for scaffolding learning and building toward more advanced skills and concepts where needed.

Image Source: A Model of Learning Objectives–based on A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives by Rex Heer, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Iowa State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

If you haven't already, take some time to look over the above graphic by picking different tiers of the Knowledge Dimension and Cognitive Process Dimension and thinking about how the example learning outcome at each intersection reflects the specific dimensions. This can help you to become more familiar with the dimensions and start seeing how to create a course that incorporates a variety of them.

If you'd like, feel free to explore these additional readings:

Writing Measurable Learning Outcomes

You've likely noticed from the section you completed on the Course Design Process, as well as from graphics and articles in this section on learning outcomes, that lists of verbs seem to be everywhere when talking about course design and outcomes.

When creating learning outcomes, verbsand not just any verb, but a measurable verbprovides you with a type of shortcut to writing a learning outcome, and also ensures that you are writing outcomes that can be assessed.

Because writing measurable outcomes is sometimes the hardest part of writing outcomes, we highly recommend that you consult with the IDEA Team in some fashion when doing this; we are always happy to check over your outcomes and ensure that they're measurable!

Here is our guidance for writing measurable learning outcomes:

  • Use action verbs (the lists linked below are a great help with this)

  • Avoid any vague verbs like "understand," "comprehend," "know," etc., that don't contain enough of a suggestion of how they'll be observed or assessed

  • Make sure that you are not just writing tasks that are specific to a lesson, but think about the general knowledge, skills, or values that a student can demonstrate after completing the course and/or their degree

Although finding a measurable verb is so, so, so important (it can't be stated enough!), a learning outcome is not only a verb. The University of Maryland University Libraries' information on learning outcomes also refers to the ABCD Method of writing learning outcomes, which refers to stating the audience, behavior, condition, and degree. The audience and condition are generally included in the lead-in statement ("At the end of this course [condition], students [audience] should be able to..."), and the behavior is the measurable verb. Thus, when writing measurable outcomes, the remainder of the outcome is called the degree, or "how the behavior will need to be performed." For more information, please read Writing Learning Outcomes: ABCD Method: An Introduction.

And without further ado, here are some of our favorite sources that have great lists of verbs you can use to help you write measurable learning outcomes. (And always remember that when choosing from these, you will use them for aligning your course's assessments, activities, learning resources, and technologies).

(You can also use the verbs that are on the squares of the knowledge and cognitive process dimensions graphic or on the other links we've shared.)