A learning outcome is an observable skill or ability that a student is supposed to acquire by the end of a course, program, unit, or period of time (Nilson, 2015, p. 17). Learning outcomes describe the kinds of things that students will know or can do that, after instruction, they could not do or know before.
Programs will vary in terms of the use of the terms outcomes, goals, objectives, and targets. All programs and units have a unique culture, structure, and history in terms of using assessment. Ultimately, it is up to the program in terms of the language it uses.
There is no one single formula for writing outcomes. The first priority is ensuring that the outcome is meaningful and focuses on things that you care about. The second priority is to ask yourself how you want students to demonstrate what they know or can do. Here are some general guidelines for writing an outcome that might be helpful:
Focus on what the student should learn, not what is taught. Example:
Students will be introduced to the concepts of design and structure. This focuses on what we do, not what the students learn.
Learning outcomes should describe an outcome, not a process. Example:
Students will participate in a hazardous training seminar. This focuses on the teaching process, not on expected level of performance for the student.
Try to focus on skills and knowledge specific to your discipline. Example:
Students will understand how to write and communicate well. This could apply to any kind of activity, even those outside of higher education. A better option may be something like this: Students will be able to write a persuasive paper about the geologic age of the earth.
Learning outcomes are not the same as program goals. Example: The program will graduate 20 students on an annual basis. This is an acceptable goal for a program, but it reveals very little about what students can do or know.
There are many useful frameworks for writing learning outcomes. One basic format is the ABCD framework. A paper about learning outcomes from the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment provides more detailed ideas.
A second thing to consider is the domain associated with what you want to know. These can be found by asking yourself the following questions
More information on how to link the questions to learning outcomes can be downloaded here.
If assessment is too overwhelming, then scale back. One idea is to maybe focus the assessment plan on just one goal a year. Or, perhaps a learning outcome is unrealistic and should be re-examined. Assessment should inform and support, not be an obstacle. If assessment makes people in your program feel overwhelmed or too time-consuming, then the assessment plan should either be scaled back or the outcomes and assessment plan should be re-evaluated.
Nilson, L. (2015). Specifications Grading. Sterling, VA: Stylus.