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Writing Intended Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes brainstorm on large flipchart paperInstructors often focus on content when embarking on course design, but it's equally important to think about the net result of a course: student learning. Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) focus on just that — they articulate what students should be able to know, do, and value by the end of a course. They're also the key to creating an aligned course, or a course in which content, context, instructional strategies, learning activities, and assessment all work together to support students’ achievement of these outcomes. This tip sheet outlines key principles to consider when creating learning outcomes and includes a variety of examples. The principles discussed here can also be applied at the program level for more global outcomes as well as to individual modules within your course.

Instructional goals vs. learning outcomes

Consider the following intended learning outcomes:

  • Articulate design considerations that reflect both individual and societal concerns
  • Formulate conjectures and discover proofs
  • Analyze the behaviour of realistic nonlinear systems
  • Identify all major syntactical constructions of the Latin language
  • Critique a variety of methodological approaches to the study of literature

Each outcome focuses on the learner, specifically stating what each student should be able to know, do, and/or value by the end of a course.

In contrast, instructional aims or goals tend to focus on what we will do as instructors and the opportunities a course will provide to students:

  • Present various human resource challenges and explore the implications for business decisions
  • Offer students the opportunity to participate in open dialog about the impact of technology on society
  • Cover the following topics: Euler’s Formula, Complex Numbers, and Factoring Polynomials
  • Enhance students’ understanding of phase transitions and Landau Theory
  • Provide a broad introduction to microbiology to non-biologists

Rather than focus on what an instructor will do in a course, ILOs focus on what learners can achieve, and thereby can shift the focus of instructional design efforts to student learning. They can prompt us to ask, "What assignment or learning activity will help my students reach the intended learning outcomes of the course?" In this way, ILOs are valuable because they aim to describe what would constitute evidence of student learning — they help instructors think through how best to asses that learning.

Characteristics of effective learning outcomes

To make your assessment decisions easier, ensure that these three principles are represented in the outcomes for your course.

Specificity

There is a fine balance between too generic and overly specific. Consider an outcome related to writing:

  • By the end of the course, a student should be able to write an essay.

Unless this outcome is for an introductory composition course, the problem with write an essay is that it is too vague to be easily assessable. This learning outcome is not connected to the desired analytical skills you may want students to demonstrate in their essays or to the content of the course.

At the same time, it is possible to be too specific:

  • Summarize War and Peace in a 5-page essay

The specificity of this outcome makes it rather rigid for a course-level outcome; it would be more appropriate as part of an assignment description. Again, what do you actually want students to be able to do? Could they achieve the intended outcome if the essay were based on a different book? Is the 5-page essay a critical component of assessment? Are there other ways to accomplish the writing task other than through an essay?

To improve this outcome statement, consider what your students need to achieve in the course. Are they expected to simply comprehend the text or do they need to analyze it? Perhaps the focus is on the skill of developing an argument in an essay and the text to be analysed is a secondary component. Here is a more specific outcome that emphasises analysis rather than writing:

  • Appraise character development in 19th century Russian literature

The wording of ILOs is also important to consider: action verbs such as writesummarize, and appraise connect to clearer learning behaviours than understand or know. Specific learning outcomes help students to make sense of the kinds of learning they need to demonstrate in a course as well as help you to streamline your course design.

Attainability

An attainable outcome describes a realistic expectation of your students. For example, first-year accounting students would not be required to analyze a complex tax case study because they would not have the needed prerequisite knowledge. Similarly, engineering or math students would not study differential equations before they have completed first-year calculus. In both cases, a fairly linear progression through the program’s curriculum is required. In other disciplines, the content might not change as much as the required learning activity. Consider the review of journal articles by second-year students and master’s students. While the second-year student might be expected to find credible sources within the discipline, the master’s student is expected to critically evaluate those articles. It is valuable to understand where your course fits into the broader curriculum to assist with identifying what your students can reasonably achieve.  

When writing outcomes, Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) is a useful tool in defining the level that students need to attain. Bloom and his colleagues divided learning into three domains: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. Today, we expand psychomotor to include a broad range of skills (e.g., problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, etc.).

Within each domain, a learning hierarchy demonstrates the increasing complexity associated with learning. In the cognitive domain, for example, there are six levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  In 2001, Anderson and Krathwohl modified the original hierarchy suggesting, for example, that creating something requires a higher level of thinking than evaluating someone else’s creation. The resulting cognitive domain hierarchy is presented in Table 1.

Cognitive Domain Hierarchy Associated Actions
Remember Recall, remember, match, select, identify, choose, order, outline
Understand Plot, define, summarize, classify, describe, present, explain
Apply Propose, audit, edit, predict, construct, use, show, solve, compute
Analyze Distinguish, differentiate, investigate, scrutinize, consider, question
Evaluate Appraise, assess,  judge, critique, comment, examine, interrogate
Create Develop, design, devise, generate, propose, build, form, assemble
Table 1: Anderson and Krathwohl’s revision of Bloom’s cognitive domain hierarchy

Bloom created hierarchies for the psychomotor and affective domains as well. These scales try to capture the increasing complexity associated with learning in each domain.

Psychomotor Domain Hierarchy Affective Domain Hierarchy
1. Imitation 1. Receiving
2. Manipulation 2. Responding
3. Precision 3. Valuing
4. Articulation 4. Organization
5. Naturalization 5. Characterization

Table 2: Bloom’s hierarchy of the psychomotor and affective domains

There are thousands of learning outcome examples available online. A search on the term “Bloom verbs” yields a variety of example verbs to select based on the domain and the level of the hierarchy. The verbs chosen can also help to make the ILOs more specific.

As you select the right level for your students, another consideration is what is achievable in a twelve-week course. Additional contextual factors that may influence your ILOs include: class size, required and/or elective course, students from the same program or a variety of programs, year of the course, level of the program, number of instructors, TA support, etc. These factors may require you to re-think what you can help your students to learn and how you can assess your course learning outcomes in a sustainable way.

Measurability

ILOs must be measurable. You need to evaluate whether — and how well — each requirement has been fulfilled. Each ILO, then, needs to relate to particular assessment questions or activities as a means of collecting evidence of learning. Using an alignment table or matrix can help you to determine whether all ILOs are assessed in your course.

Specificity can also assist with measurement. For example, if an ILO indicates that students will understand electrical circuits, how might that be measured? Should they be able to build and test a circuit or simply draw a diagram of one? The actual learning that is to be assessed is not very clear from a vague ILO statement. Identifying the assessments that you want to use can help you to sharpen your ILOs.

Given that ILOs can relate to different learning domains and different levels within those domains, they are not all equally easy to measure. Some types of ILOs are straightforward to measure (e.g., those on the lower end of the cognitive domain or specific behaviours in the psychomotor domain). For example, measurement is clear when assessments have right versus wrong answers. In math, students can demonstrate their ability to apply certain equations through assignment or test questions; they get marks when they are correct and no marks when they are not. However, not all ILOs are so easily assessable. An ILO that asks students to analyze a text according to a particular theory of literary criticism may be assessed via an analytical paper or seminar presentation, but there is not one optimal end product. In such cases it is typically possible to create criteria for a rubric that can be used to assess how well the various criteria have been met.

Measuring outcomes that look for changes in attitudes or values rather than specific behaviours can be even more challenging. These ILOs typically stem from the affective domain. It may be more productive to think of what evidence can be collected as indicators of a change than to focus on measurement. For example, what evidence could you collect to demonstrate that the following outcomes have been met:  

  • Appreciate works of art from the 20th century
  • Value lifelong learning in their profession
  • Question the impact of socioeconomic status in relation to access to higher education

In the lifelong learning example, if a student researches continuing education courses and makes a professional development plan for the future, this could demonstrate that they see value in lifelong learning. Journaling or other types of learning documents like ePortfolios may provide students with a means to explain or show changes in how or what they think. They are not guarantees of a change, but they can capture reasonably robust indicators of learning. As ILOs become less concrete, direct measurement becomes more challenging. Again, developing rubrics that identify key characteristics of new or changed values or approaches to thinking can help to assess such ILOs.

References

Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York: D. MacKay. 

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teachingtipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Writing Intended Learning Outcomes. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.

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