When you’re creating a course, how do you determine the goals for your college students to reach by the end of the semester? Creating learning outcomes gives you a tool by which to tailor your student assessment, measuring their aptitude against the initial purpose of the course. Writing student learning outcomes can be a challenge, and there are several different ways to look at this tool. Consider some of these ideas as you evaluate your students’ learning.

Assessment and learning outcomes

Assessment of college student academic performance can be easily summed up as you determine if your students have learned what you want them to know through the course. You must decide how you will measure their knowledge, as well as how well you want them to know the material (should they have a passing knowledge or an in-depth understanding?). Assessment is an ongoing process rather than a one-time grade; once you’ve developed tools, you can apply them throughout the semester to measure your students’ learning.

A learning outcome is a statement that sums up what it is you want your students to achieve. It usually takes the form “Students can” or “Students are able to,” followed by a verb that applies to the knowledge or skill you are measuring. The end phrase gives more information about the verb’s purpose. For example, “Students can analyze data and sources used in a news article to determine whether it is ‘fake news.’”

Bloom’s Taxonomy

The University Library staff at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed “Tips on Writing Learning Outcomes” based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. This source posits levels of cognitive skills in order lowest to highest:

  • Knowledge/remembering
  • Comprehension/understanding
  • Application/applying
  • Analysis/analyzing
  • Evaluation/evaluating
  • Synthesis/creating

These skills give you a good place to start when you are deciding on verbs to use in your learning outcomes. For example, if you are measuring knowledge, you can use words such as “define, list, recognize,” according to the article writers. If you want to measure evaluation, use words such as “assess, critique, evaluate, rank, rate.” The team advised against using vague words such as “understand” or “know about,” as such verbs aren’t measurable.

Four dimensions of outcomes

At the UCLA Reaccreditation by WASC website, staffers who created the document “Learning Outcomes Guidelines” offered a different view of learning outcomes, measuring in terms of four dimensions:

  • Knowledge outcomes
  • Skills outcomes
  • Attitudes and values outcomes
  • Behavioral outcomes

These dimensions measure not just knowledge and application, but also social, ethical, and performance outcomes. The staff also noted that learning outcomes differ from course goals in their specificity: learning outcomes are concrete, measurable descriptions that can be assessed, whereas goals are broad and non-specific.

Student evaluation

It can also be useful to have students measure their own learning, such as in the checklist “Evaluating Learning Outcomes” in Carolyn Hopper’s Practicing College Learning Strategies, Seventh Edition. Hopper prompted students, “Analyze what you learned in this chapter.… write a couple of sentences about how you learned each learning outcome and how you plan to continue to use what you learned” (Hopper, 28).

By encouraging self-assessment, you receive a different view of student knowledge and require your college students to practice critical thinking skills.

What learning outcomes have you found most useful in your courses? Share your ideas below.

Reference: Hopper, Carolyn. 2016. Practicing College Learning Strategies, 7th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.