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Writing Learning Outcomes

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. These are all statements of intentionality. 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.

All ISU academic programs have stated learning outcomes. You can browse through the programs for examples. For more information, see the Writing Student Learning Outcomes Guide developed by UAS.

Things to Think About

There is no one single formula for writing outcomes. The first priority is ensuring that the outcome is meaningful and focuses on things the program cares about. The second priority is to ask questions about how students can demonstrate what they know or can do. Here are some general guidelines for writing learning outcomes:

  • 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 the instructor does, 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.  Instructors can then use their expertise and judgment to infer whether learning has taken place. A better option may be something like this: Students will be able to write a persuasive paper about the geologic age of the earth.

  • Avoid verbs that describe 'unobservable' characteristics.

    Examples include: appreciate, understand, know, learn, become aware of, or become familiar with. The verb 'understand' describes an internal cognitive dynamic. Students must show instructors what they learned through an "artifact" or behavior.

  • 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.

  • Program-level outcomes should be collaboratively authored and collectively accepted

    (Assessment for Learning, P. Maki, 2010). Individual faculty determine learning outcomes for their individual courses.

Frameworks and Domains for Writing Learning Outcomes

The first thing to consider is the domain associated with what you want to know. These can be found by asking yourself the following questions

  • Cognitive domain: “What do you want your graduates to know ?”
  • Affective domain: “What do you want your students to care about?” or “What do you want students to value ?”
  • Psychomotor (or Behavioral) domain: “What do you want your graduates to be able to do ?”

For more information, see the Writing Student Learning Outcomes Guide developed by UAS.

Making Time for Learning Outcomes

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.