What is a Course-Specific Learning Outcomes (LO)?

Course-specific learning outcomes (also sometimes referred to as learning objectives or course-specific goals) are clear statements that describe the competences that students should possess upon completion of a course (Simon and Taylor, 2009; Anderson et al., 2001; Harder, 2002; Kennedy et al., 2006).  Effective learning outcomes state what students should know and be able to demonstrate, as well as the depth of learning that is expected.  Clearly defined and intentionally integrated course-specific learning outcomes can:

  1. help to organize, structure and enhance student learning;
  2. improve communication with students and other instructors regarding the important concepts and skills covered in a course; and,
  3. improve assessment practices (Simon and Taylor, 2009).

Course-specific learning outcomes are often presented separately in the cognitive, psychomotor and affective domains (Table 1), but may also reflect a range of interacting knowledge, skills and attitudes (Harder, 2002).  Based on various situational factors and contexts, courses typically contain 5-8 learning outcomes that represent the students’ integrated and essential learning within the course.

Table 1: Domains of learning, with example levels of sophistication and common verb associations a

Domain of Learning Levels of Sophistication Common Verb Associations
Cognitive (Knowledge) What will students know? remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating, creating define, identify, describe, differentiate, explain, apply, analyse, resolve, justify, recommend, judge, create, design
Psychomotor (Skills) What will students be able to do? imitation, manipulation, precision, articulation, naturalization adapt, arrange, build, calibrate, construct, design, deliver, demonstrate, display, dissect, fix, mimic, operate, sketch, use,  perform
Affective (Attitudes, Values or Habits of Mind) What will students value or care about? receive, respond, value, organize, characterize ask, challenge, demonstrate, discuss, dispute, follow, justify, integrate, practice, judge, question, resolve, synthesise

a see Marzano and Kendall (2007); Kennedy et al. (2006); Anderson et al. (2001); Bloom et. al. (1956; 1964) for further details and examples related to the domains of learning

How do you write a course-specific learning outcome?

Course-specific learning outcomes should:

  • Start with an action verb, followed by a statement specifying the depth of learning to be demonstrated, and finally a statement to give it disciplinary context (Figure 1).
  • Be specific. Terms such as know, understand, learn, appreciate, and to be aware of should be avoided, and the specific level of achievement should be clearly identified.
  • Be capable of being assessed. For course-specific learning outcomes, it is often helpful to add the preposition “by” or “through” followed by a statement which clearly states how the LO will be assessed (see Table 2).
  • Be balanced. Broad LOs are often difficult to observe, measure and assess. An extensive list of learning outcomes may limit flexibility and adaptability in the curriculum, making it difficult for students and the instructor to communicate an integrated understanding of the subject matter.
  • Be discipline and subject-matter specific.  The discipline and/or subject matter should be clear if the learning outcome statement was read in isolation.
  • Be concise and clearly stated.  The learning outcome statement should be written in such a way that it can be understood by multiple audiences.
  • Be realistic and achievable given the time and resources available to both learners and instructors in the course.

Table 2: Before and after examples of course learning outcomes

Before – broad and ambiguous

After – direct, measurable and achievable
By the end of the semester, successful students will be able to:

Students will become familiar with plant and animal species in Southern Ontario

  • Level of achievement/sophistication expected unclear

Identify and describe 15 common plant and animal species found in the Carolinian Forest Region through field study and the development of an identification guide

Students will critique works of art

  • Additional detail required

Critique contemporary works of art based on an appropriate set of criteria through studio critiques and an independent essay

Students will be taught various decision-making models

  • Teacher-centred, level of sophistication expected unclear

Apply appropriate decision-making models in business and marketing through participation in a collaborative group project

Students will appreciate the ethical responsibilities of social scientists

  • Too broad, unclear how this can be measured

Assess the ethical implications of research in the social sciences through in-class discussion and an independent written report

Students will learn about research proposals

  • Ambiguous, level of sophistication expected unclear

Develop and present a research proposal (including appropriate research methods and a review of literature) on a relevant topic in primary or secondary education, through an independent presentation and written report

References

Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R., Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., and Wittrock, M.C.  2001. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Longman, New York.

Bloom, B.S., Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W. And Drathwohl, D. 1956.  Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Volume 1: The Cognitive Domain.  MacKay, New York.

Bloom, B.S., Masia, B.B. and Krathwohl, D.R.  1964. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Volume II: The affective domain.  MacKay, New York.

Harden, R.M. 2002. Learning outcomes and instructional objectives: is there a difference? Medical Teacher 24(2):151-155.

Kennedy, D. Hyland, A., and Ryan, N. 2006. Writing and Using Learning Outcomes: a Practical Guide.  In the Bologna Handbook.  Accessed Online: http://www.bologna.msmt.cz/files/learning-outcomes.pdf  Feb. 9, 2011.

Marzano, R.J. and Kendall, J.S. 2007. The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Corwin Press, CA.

Simon, B. and Taylor, J. (2009) What is the value of course-specific learning goals? Journal of College Science Teaching. Nov/Dec: 53-57