What are learning outcomes?
By definition, learning outcomes are “measurable, observable statements of what students will be able to do at the end of a course” (Webb, 2009). On the one hand, learning outcomes are great organizational tools. For you, creating course learning outcomes provides an opportunity to reflect on what you want students to learn or to be able to do by the end of the course. These outcomes can be used to determine what you will teach, when you will teach it, and how assessment measures (e.g. assignments and exams) will be structured. For the students, outcomes provide a clear overview of what will be covered in the course. The outcomes also provide a formal indicator of what knowledge and/or skills students are expected to gain.
On the other hand, learning outcomes are also invaluable assessment tools. In order to function properly, learning outcomes must be measurable; thus, not only do they indicate what students will learn by the end of the course, but they also provide the basis for measuring whether this learning is actually taking place. The results from this assessment of learning within the course can ultimately be used to drive course improvement. Likewise, the results from assessment of learning across all courses within a program, along with evaluative efforts from capstone courses, comprehensive examinations, post-tests, or other end-of-program measures, can be used to drive program improvement.
How do I write learning outcomes?
There are three primary things to keep in mind while writing learning outcomes ("Writing Learning Outcomes," 2010):
1. The specified action by the learners must be observable.
While it is tempting to use phrases such as “students will understand…” in learning outcomes, consider how difficult it is to observe “understanding.” To say that one “understands” a concept implies a comprehension without any clear action to demonstrate that yes, they really do get it.
2. The specified action by the learners must be measurable.
Another tempting phrase is “students will learn…” Student learning outcomes naturally have the end goal of students learning. The use of this phrase creates a layer of redundancy: the assessment process, including creation of learning outcomes and assessment plans, entails defining what you want students to learn and how you will measure whether this learning is taking place. Since learning is the force driving the creation of the outcomes, including it as the action in the outcomes is both broad and redundant. This is why it is important to use action verbs such as “demonstrate,” “articulate,” or “identify” in your outcomes. These are specific and easier to measure.
A comprehensive list of good action verbs to use when writing learning outcomes is found at http://www.unf.edu/groups/unffa/APCWorkflowSystem/Writing_Measureable_Learning_Objectives.html
3. The specified action must be done by the learners.
Though these outcomes can be measured either directly (student demonstrated learning, such as a portfolio) or indirectly (student reported learning, such as an exit survey or aggregate data), it is essential that the action in the outcomes is performed by the students in order to have a truly valid measurement of whether student learning is taking place. To ensure that this focus is maintained, start outcomes with “students will be able to…” or “students will…”
Other important things to keep in mind while writing outcomes (Zelna, n.d.):
1. Is the outcome meaningful?
2. Is the outcome manageable?
4. It is far better to have a few well-written, meaningful, and manageable outcomes than to have numerous extravagant and unrealistic ones. Additionally, it is better to build an assessment plan around one or a small number of learning outcomes and to complete the assessment cycle around those. The fewer the number of outcomes being assessed at a time, the more manageable the assessment process will be and thus the more likely it will be that the process is carried out in a timely, thorough manner.
Webb, K. (2009). Helpful resources for writing measurable learning outcomes. Retrieved from:
Writing learning outcomes. (2010). Retrieved from: http://www.aallnet.org/prodev/outcomes.asp#anchor
Zelna, C. L. (n.d.). Basic assessment plan development. Retrieved from: http://www.ncsu.edu/assessment/old/presentations/assess_process/basic_plan_devt.pdf