Creating Learning Outcomes
One of the fundamental steps in the initial course design phase is creating learning outcomes for the course.
What is a learning outcome? The CTSI Guide on Developing Learning Outcomes defines learning outcomes as “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.”
Why write learning outcomes? Since the primary focus of a learning outcome is the learner, a significant overall benefit of creating learning outcomes is that they can help you to shift your framework from being teaching-centred to being student-centred. Learning outcomes are of benefit to both students and their teachers. Learning outcomes help students understand how they will apply knowledge and skills from a course to their own lives and how they will be assessed in the class. If students have an understanding of where the course is going, it will be easier for them to get there. For teachers, developing learning outcomes provides an opportunity to reflect on course content and how we intend students to use and apply knowledge and content gained. Learning outcomes can also be used to decide on appropriate assessments and to provide standards for evaluating those assessments.
How do you write learning outcomes? As with all course planning, developing course outcomes also requires you to ask yourself a few questions, such as:
- What essential things must students know to be able to succeed in the course?
- What essential things must students be able to do to succeed in the course?
- What knowledge or skills will the course 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?
Once you answer these initial questions, you can start to craft your learning outcomes. Often, these statements begin with “By the end of this course, students will be able to….” The CTSI guide on Developing Learning Outcomes contextualizes learning outcomes, provides examples of strong and weak learning outcomes, and shares further resources to create strong learning outcomes. Here are three examples of learning outcomes from the guide linked to content, skills, and values.
- Content-Centred Outcome: “By the end of this course, students will be able to categorize macroeconomic policies according to the economic theories from which they emerge.”
- Skill-Centred Outcome: “By the end of this course, students will be able to analyze qualitative and quantitative data, and explain how evidence gathered supports or refutes an initial hypothesis.”
- Value-Centred Outcome: “By the end of this course, students will be able to work cooperatively in a small group environment.”
Strong learning outcomes are linked to various levels of learning. Bloom’s taxonomy of significant learning ranks these learning levels from lowest to highest level of intellectual engagement. As shown in the graphic below, Bloom’s stages of learning, from lowest to highest, are remembering (including memorization), understanding (explaining ideas or concepts, restating in your own words, paraphrasing, summarizing), application (using information to solve problems, translating abstract ideas into concrete solutions or identifying connections), analysis (identifying components and logical structure), synthesis (combining knowledge from multiple fields), evaluation (making decisions and determining value), and creation (building something new out of information and knowledge).
(Figure 3.3: Bloom’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching)
When writing your course outcomes, you will need to consider if you are expecting students to learn on a knowledge-gaining level, to be able to evaluate an aspect of their learning, or to achieve a combination of levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of significant learning. The important part is that you identify these various level for your students.
Therefore, part of the strength of good learning outcomes lays in the verbs chosen to articulate those outcomes. The TATP have a one-page list of Action Verbs for Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. This resource would be useful to have on hand whenever you write learning outcomes. You could also watch the CTSI module on Developing Course and Tutorial Learning Outcomes.
While creating learning outcomes, be mindful of your class enrolment. Whether you have 100 students or 10 will impact what students can achieve. We will discuss scaling and adapting teaching techniques for various class sizes in more depth in section 5.8.
How can you use course outcomes to organize the rest of your course? Once you have created the course learning outcomes, they can be used across the course planning process. For example, each lesson or lecture should have learning outcomes that are rooted in the overall course outcomes. Directly linking these two aspects, overarching course goals and individual lesson goals, will help students to see the connections between the big picture and the smaller details that may otherwise not be readily apparent.
Your learning outcomes will be connected to your teaching and learning activities and your assessments. You can also use course learning outcomes to inform weekly lesson planning and to support the creation of tutorial outcomes. We recommend having a look at the TATP guide Examples for Developing Tutorial Learning Outcomes which contains sample tutorial outcomes across the Humanities, Social Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Life Sciences.