Guest Contributor: Worth Hawes, PhD, Senior Academic Services Consultant, Cengage Learning.

In yesterday’s post, I shared some comments about how my own attitude and motivation has changed over the years regarding the ongoing drive for “better student outcomes.” In this article I want to talk more about the mechanics of student outcomes—in particular, what a good learning outcome actually looks like. Indeed, obtaining better student learning outcomes in the end requires the formulation of strong learning outcomes—the thing itself—in the beginning.

Inasmuch as any learning outcome is a description of a particular demonstrable skill, capability, competency, etc. that a student should be able to perform successfully at the end of a given course, a well-formed learning outcome (according to our instructional design standards) is composed of three elements: the “what,” the “how,” and the “how well” of the behavior that a successful student will demonstrate.

  • The “what” of a well-formed learning outcome describes the particular behavior or action that a successful or “competent” student should be able to perform upon completion of the course. The “what” typically starts with a verb, generally tied to Bloom’s Taxonomy, associated with an action that is measurable (Google “verbs bloom’s taxonomy” for an endless supply of verbs that meet these criteria.) For those of us that are still learning how to write strong outcomes, this is the place to be reminded that understand, know, and learn are not typically, if ever, effective verbs for learning outcomes. Even if you want a student to “understand” a subject matter, the key is to determine how a student would effectively demonstrate this understanding. For instance, then, a proposed learning outcome that would read something like “understand Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative” would be better written as “apply (or compare, or argue, etc.) Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative to any contemporary moral controversy covered in the class…
  • The “how” of a strong outcome denotes the conditions under which a student should be able to perform the task—if in fact there are any conditions. For instance, does a student have the right to use a textbook or original reading (or, say, a calculator if the action deals in quantifiable results) at the time the assessment of the behavior? Thus, our learning outcome is growing to something along the lines of “apply, without use of the course textbook or a student’s notes, Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative to any contemporary moral controversy covered in the class…”
  • Finally, the “how well” provides a clear standard by which the performance will be assessed. This standard will in effect reveal to the student how he or she or the instructor will know if he or she has succeeded in achieving the particular outcome. Sometimes the “how well” is expressed as a simple degree of success, such as with an adverb like “correctly” or “accurately”—if the desired “answer” produced by the behavior is that precise. But, for our more complicated example, the standard might be more involved: “Apply, without use of the course textbook or a student’s notes, Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative to any contemporary moral controversy covered in the class by restating the second formulation and subsequently describing at least three salient features of the moral controversy where the formulation is relevant …

Going back to my original article: with strong learning outcomes written in this fashion, not only is it not a mystery as to what a student needs to learn in a given course or lesson, but it’s also not a mystery as to what the teacher needs to teach. The key as a teacher becomes then to identify what is the most effective and efficient path to mastery of this outcome. Taking this outcomes-based approach would certainly be less murky than it was for me years ago teaching introductory philosophy students, for which I would have thought “familiarity with Kant’s ethics” was enough to describe a desirable learning outcome—as if with mere “familiarity with Kant’s ethics” my students could do anything close to what I described in the sample learning outcome. Moreover, with a better-defined set of well-formed outcomes, and with my honesty toward them, I might just have avoided reading primary Kant sources with my students altogether, and opted for an inevitably more efficient approach to the same outcome—e.g. choosing relevant readings other than the original Kant. Just think of the pain I could have avoided for my students!

**Endless thanks go to Natalie Skadra, Manager of Instructional Design at Cengage Learning, for her assistance with this article!

Do you see a noticeable difference in the ease of tracking learning outcomes when they include the “what”, the “how”, and the “how well” that Worth talks about? Why (or why not), in your view, is it important to be able to include these elements? Share your thoughts below.