Tip: Writing Learning Outcomes
What do students need to know and be able to do at the end of the course?
This approach to course design, outlined here last week, starts with the end in mind: Learning Outcomes. Upon completing your course, what do you want students to have learned? What do students need to know and be able to do at the end of the course?
For many of us, our courses are guided by collaboratively created, program-wide, big picture learning outcomes - something like:
Students will be able to give academic presentations.
If this is a program outcome, then in my course I would want to break this down into smaller pieces. What am I really asking students to do when I ask them to give an “academic presentation”? What does successfully giving an academic presentation look like? My initial thoughts might break it down into something like this:
Students will be able to…
outline a persuasive response to a prompt
incorporate appropriate evidence (anecdote, research, examples…)
plan a 5-minute speech based on their outline
apply public speaking techniques in delivering the presentation
As I continue to think about what a successful end to the course really looks like, I would continue to refine the objectives. But already there’s a lot of improvement from the program level objective to how I would start to describe to students what they need to do well by the end of the semester.
What do learning outcomes need?
I think of learning outcome statements as having a three-part composition:
A verb that identifies what students are doing.
A statement that addresses the content area in which students will do the verb from the first part.
A criterion that adds more detail about what successful performance looks like.
Examples might be…
Students will be able to contrast two different places they have lived, addressing physical space, geographical location, and family connections.
Students will be able to construct a persuasive speech of approximately 5 minutes that incorporates 3 persuasive writing strategies practiced this semester.
As a result of participating in the library research talk, students will be able to identify research sources to prepare a bibliography with accurate citations for 5 sources.
One of the most challenging things to think about is making sure that you are describing an observable process. Instructors often write outcomes like, students will understand how to write a contrast essay. Or, students will learn about the system of checks and balances in the American government. There’s a lot missing here. We want outcomes to reflect the external results, not the internal processes - which are important, but not observable. Understand isn’t something that we can observe; think instead about how a student could show you they understand something. A second problem is that this outcome isn’t very informative to a student. You, the instructor, know what you mean by a contrast essay. Presumably, the student does not, since that’s what they’re learning to do. Is there a way to describe the result or product using more detail?
When thinking about your own learning outcomes, it’s useful to know how to use verbs from Bloom’s taxonomy to describe the different types of learning experiences in your course. (Of course, Bloom’s isn’t without debate, so if you really want to dive in on the reading list, here is another interesting article, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Revised.) I like the interlocking gears approach, below, to visualizing how different cognitive processes fit together and complement each other.
However you envision these cognitive processes, I think it’s helpful - particularly if you’ve not written learning outcomes before - to think about what it is you want students to do and how to describe that to them using more precise terms.
For more information…
If you like to play around with how to create learning outcomes, here are two different online outcome generators you mind find helpful: University of Nevada (more robust) and EasyGenerator (easier to use).
Here’s an interesting video looking at Bloom’s through a digital learning lens
Of course, Bloom’s isn’t the only taxonomy out there. Here’s a Guide to Taxonomies of Learning prepared by the University College Dublin teaching center.
What comes next?
The next piece is thinking about assessment: How will students demonstrate that they’ve met the learning outcomes for your course? With strong, clear outcomes it becomes easier to see where current assessments do - or do not - accurately and helpfully measure student progress.
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