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Defining Meaningful Course Learning Outcomes

Why do I Need Learning Outcomes?

Clarity and Direction

Learning outcomes define the purpose of the course. They offer clarity for students in terms of their learning and priorities as well as the course focus and assessment expectations. Everything that you do in a course, and through the course development process, should be focused on its outcomes and the learning that they necessitate. As we discussed with constructive alignment, your outcomes should be clearly aligned to the teaching practices you use and the assessment that you choose. Without this, it is impossible to measure your outcomes and clarify student attainment.

Understanding their Purpose

The process of developing your learning outcomes begins with considering the purpose of the course and its role within the program. Asking yourself the following questions could be helpful to the process:

  • Where in the program does this course sit?
  • What learning are students entering the course with?
  • What learning do students need to progress in the program?
  • What skills are students entering the course with?
  • What skills do students need to progress in the program?
  • What learning stage are these students at?

These questions assist in situating your outcomes around the necessary learning, knowledge, and skill development which must take place within the course for students to progress. You should be mindful that you don’t have too many learning outcomes. Five to seven should be the maximum, otherwise it becomes unclear what the focus is and difficult to develop relevant measurement through assessment.

Building Skills and Knowledge

When developing learning outcomes, it is important to consider both the skill development and knowledge acquisition of students. One common mistake instructors make when developing outcomes is to focus too heavily on content knowledge, and to a high level of specificity. What you end up with is a long list of content driven objectives (as opposed to outcomes) which encourage forms of assessment that lean too heavily on knowledge acquisition. Strive for a balance between the skills that students need to develop in order to succeed in their learning, and the core knowledge that needs to be understood and applied to progress in the discipline. When this balance is achieved in a course, and is consistent with its place within the program, the relevance of its outcomes becomes clearer to students and allows them the opportunity to engage with their learning fully.

From Program to Course

In developing outcomes, you first need to consider the program-level outcomes that your students are working towards. Once you have these outcomes, you can then place your course within the program to see what role it is playing and what its purpose is in relation to program outcomes (when in the program are knowledge or skills introduced, reinforced, and mastered). Defining your outcomes this way and clearly relating your course outcomes to program outcomes allows your students greater clarity as they progress through the program and gain the skills and knowledge essential to meet expectations. This is even more important if program level outcomes are being measured within your course as this will impact your assessment choices so that the appropriate data can be developed to validate student progression.

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How do I Develop Learning Outcomes?

Look to the Program

Begin the process of developing your outcomes by considering the outcomes of the related program and the stage of development students are at within the program. It is good to go back from this point to find out what knowledge and skills have been taught and measured prior to students reaching your course so you know where students are at in their learning and how they need to progress. Curriculum mapping exercises at the program-level are very useful in this process as they can clearly show where outcomes are being measured throughout the program and give you access to the information you need to place your course strategically within the wider context.

Consider the Stage of Student Learning

Once you have a sense of the program-level outcomes, you should consider student learning progression. Where are students in their progression through the program? Consider this both in terms of students’ learning within the program, as well as their skill development. Once you have this answer, you can consider where they need to be when they successfully move through the course. This gives clear guidance for the nature of the outcomes, the mix between skill and knowledge, and the depth of learning that needs to take place in relation to learning theories such as Bloom’s taxonomy (more below).

The Importance of Measurement

It is important when defining learning outcomes that you stay focused on measurement. Learning outcomes need to be measured and you need to be able to clearly relate the outcome to the measurement. The type of outcomes you choose will impact the type of assessment that you can use in your course, so alignment between the two is essential. If you choose too many outcomes that are too specific and focused on content knowledge, you must naturally gravitate towards testing methods such as multiple-choice exams and midterms in order to assess them.

You can open possibilities for more creative application-based assessment if you can find the right balance between knowledge and skill acquisition and have outcomes that clearly prioritize the core development that needs to take place for students. Effective assessment will be able to measure students’ ability to engage and apply their learning, and therefore display clear understanding of the material, rather than whether they can recall course material. The core issue is to ensure that measurement (and your ability to measure) plays a key role in defining your outcomes. If you don’t have realistic ways to measure a learning outcome, it should be reconsidered.

Using Bloom's Taxonomy

To assist in writing effective learning outcomes, we employ Bloom's Taxonomy. According to Blooms’ (1956) theory, learning can be classified into three domains:

  • Cognitive: mental abilities (knowledge).
  • Affective: growth in emotional areas, feelings, attitudes (attitude or self).
  • Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (skills).

Within each of these domains, Bloom isolated different levels of student engagement and attainment and offered a series of action words that can be used in developing learning outcomes. Within the cognitive domain for example, we have:

  • remember
  • understand
  • apply
  • analyze
  • evaluate
  • create

At each of these levels the sophistication of the learning outcomes, and related assessment, needs to be increased to define expected outcomes and attainment. As students move through their degree program, they should move through these stages of learning to achieve program level outcome attainment.

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How do I Assess Learning Outcomes?

At the Program Level

At the program level, learning outcomes across all courses should be designed in a coordinated and collaborative way. Mapping outcomes across a program through curriculum mapping exercises supports this process by identifying which courses introduce outcomes, when they are reinforced, and attained as students move through the program as a whole.

The first key consideration for program level learning outcomes is to identify where these outcomes are being assessed across the program? There may be outcomes that are being assessed in multiple courses across the program or it may be at a single point, through program-wide initiatives such as capstone courses. Ultimately, though, there should be a moment of measurement for all students across the program so that they have an opportunity to achieve the outcomes and clearly display their learning. The second issue to consider throughout the program is where in the program students are doing the foundational learning that prepares them for the summative assessment of program-level outcomes.

  • What needs to happen at each level of student learning to prepare them for this measurement?
  • Where is it happening across the program that has prepared them for this measurement?
  • How is it being measured at this point so that students, and the program, have formative feedback points on student progression before final measurement?

Breaking your outcomes down in this way, and aligning them with appropriate measurements, allows programs to make adjustments if student learning towards an outcome is not progressing as planned. The key is to build in these formative and summative moments of measurement so that you can clearly map student learning attainment through the program.

Assessing outcomes at the program level necessitates the development of program wide rubrics that can be used consistently so that the information developed around student attainment is consistent across the program. It is good to think about this at the curriculum mapping moment, once you have your outcomes mapped into your curriculum you can define assessment methods to measure attainment and then develop rubrics with instructors across the program so that they are relevant and can be used universally. Educational developers like the ones in Laurier's Teaching Excellence and Innovation team can assist with this process.

At the Course Level

At the course level, the first place to look to in developing outcomes is the program-level curriculum map. This will allow you to understand what role your course is playing in the program with regards to program-level outcomes. Is your course where students are getting measured for program-level learning outcomes? Is your course playing a formative role in their development and therefore you need to develop assessment and outcomes that can create the necessary information? Such information will impact which outcomes you will need to define for your course and what assessment will be needed to measure those outcomes so the data generated can be used at a program level.

If you course does not play an inherent role in the program level learning outcomes, then your process of developing outcomes and assessment to measure them is best focused on developing students’ necessary knowledge and skills within the course content. Once your outcomes are defined, design your assessments specifically to measure them, thinking again about formative and summative opportunities for students, and then to develop measurement tools that assist students in their learning.

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