Introduction

Learning outcomes describe the measurable skills, abilities, knowledge, or values that students should be able to do or demonstrate as a result of a completing a program of study, a course, or lesson.

Learning outcomes are student-centered rather than teacher-centered, in that they describe what the students will do, not what the instructor will teach. Learning outcomes are not standalone statements. They must all relate to each other and to the title of the unit and avoid repetition.

Articulating learning outcomes for students is part of good teaching. If you tell students what you expected them to do, and give them practice in doing it, then there is a good chance that they will be able to do it on a test or major assignment. That is to say, they will have learned what you wanted them to know. If you do not tell them what they will be expected to do, then they are left guessing what you want. If they guess wrong, they will resent you for being tricky, obscure, or punishing.

Learning outcomes need to be SMART:

  • Specific - The learning outcome should be well defined and clear. It states exactly what will be accomplished.
  • Measurable - The learning outcome should provide a benchmark or target so that the institution can determine when the target has been reached, by how much it has been exceeded or by how much it has fallen short.
  • Agreed Upon - Important stakeholders must be in general agreement with the institution’s mission, goals and learning outcomes. Stakeholders may include university, school administration, faculty, students, alumni, and/or community members.
  • Realistic - Learning outcomes should be reasonable given the available resources. Learning outcomes should neither be easy nor impossible to attain, but somewhere in between.
  • Time-Framed - A learning outcome should include a specific date by which it will be completed. It is important to allow enough time to successfully implement the steps needed to achieve the objective, but not so much as to elicit procrastination.

1. Why Learning Outcomes?

Learning outcomes help faculty to:

  • Decide out emphasis in the course: Of all the things we could teach, what should we teach?
  • Decide how best to teach: Teaching students to analyze requires different teaching approaches from teaching students to memorize.
  • Decide how best to assess learning: Do I need a project or a final exam?
  • Communicate expectations to students: What are our decisions on the matters above?

Learning outcomes help students by:

  • Creating a connection between teaching and learning, between professors and students
  • Taking much of the guessing out of the student's attempt to learn
  • Enabling them to truly master the content of the course

2. Levels of Learning Outcomes

There are three different levels of learning outcomes - Degree program, Course, and Class module. Table 1 below compares the scope, time dimension, and use of these three levels of learning outcomes:

  Degree Program Course Class Module
Scope Broad Moderate Narrow
Time Needed One or more years Weeks or months Hours or days
Use Design curriculum Design units of instruction Design lectures, daily activities, experiences, and exercises

Table 1. Relationship of Degree Program, Course, and Class Module Learning Outcomes.

The Office of Institutional Assessment and Compliance provides a sample learning outcome list by degree program here.

3. Format of the Learning Outcome Statement

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy provides the framework for writing course-level learning outcomes. Each learning outcome is represented by a sentence that consists of an action verb related to a cognitive process and a clearly defined content related to a specific knowledge type.

All learning outcomes have a common format:

Subject Verb Object
S V O

Examples:

  • “Each student will be able to use word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation graphics in preparing their final research project and report”.
  • “Upon completion of the module on educational objectives, students will be able to classify specific educational objectives into the cognitive (knowing), psychomotor (doing) and affective (feeling) learning domains”.

4. The SUBJECT of the Learning Outcome Statement

The SUBJECT of the learning outcome statement is the student or the learner.

  • The student will...
  • Students will...
  • The student should...
  • Students should...

5. The VERB of the Learning Outcome Statement

Each verb in a learning outcome statement represents a cognitive process.

Learning outcomes should consider the different types of cognitive processes involved in knowledge retention and transfer. Table 2 below shows action verbs in increasing order of complexity that are directly related to cognitive processes. Please note that verbs such as list, state, and write cannot be used as verbs in learning outcome statements because they do not have anything to do with cognitive processes.

Category Action Verbs & Cognitive Processes Assessment Formats

Remember - retrieve relevant knowledge from long-term memory

Recognizing - comparing knowledge from long-term memory with presented information. Sample learning outcome verbs may include: identify, recognize, select, label, arrange, order, repeat, copy, duplicate, match, associate.

True-false; Multiple choice; Matching items from two lists

 

Recalling - retrieving knowledge from long-term memory when presented with a question. Sample learning outcome verbs may include: recall, locate, retrieve, list, name, reproduce, state, describe, cite, recite, define, quote.

Questions vary depending on the extent of providing hints and being placed within a larger context

Understand - construct meaning from oral, written, and graphic communication

Interpreting - moving from one form of representation to another. Sample learning outcome verbs may include: represent, interpret, clarify, paraphrase, reproduce, change, modify, convert, transform, translate, restate, rewrite, quantify.

 
     
     
     
     
     
     

6. The OBJECT of the Learning Outcome Statement.

The object of the learning outcome statement is derived most often from the course content.

The course content can be linked to four general types of knowledge: Factual, Conceptual, Procedural, and Metacognitive. Table 3 below explains these types of knowledge along with their specific subtypes and provides examples for each one.

     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

Table 3. The Knowledge Dimension.

7. The Taxonomy Table and Assessment

The two-dimensional Taxonomy Table is a graphic representation of the learning outcome statement.

Educators can use the Taxonomy Table in at least three ways:

  • To gain a more complete understanding of their intended learning outcomes.
  • To make better decisions about how to teach and assess their students in terms of their intended learning outcomes.
  • To determine how well the intended learning outcomes, assessments, and instructional activities fit together in a meaningful and useful way.

Table 4 represents the Taxonomy Table. The intersection of a learning outcome verb (cognitive process) and a knowledge type (broad classification for course content) represents a cell in this table. Specific learning outcome statements corresponding to each cell of the table are shown below.

  The Cognitive Process Dimension
The Knowledge Dimension            
             
             
             
             

Table 4. The Taxonomy Table.

Additional Resources

  • Syllabus Design. Center for Teaching and Learning, Brigham Young University.
  • Learning Outcomes. Office of Institutional Assessment and Compliance, University of South Carolina.
  • Syllabus Construction Guide. Office of Institutional Assessment and Compliance, University of South Carolina.
  • Sample Syllabus. Office of Institutional Assessment and Compliance, University of South Carolina.
  • USC Policy ACAF 2.03. Creation and Revision of Academic Courses.
  • USC Policy ACAF 2.03a. Creation and Revision of Academic Courses Appendices.