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Learning outcomes, also known as learning objectives, goals, or understandings are defined as statements that describe “in specific terms what knowledge, skills, or attitudes learners should be able to demonstrate following instruction” (Webb 2013).

Learning outcomes are certainly not a new concept, having gained popularity after 1962 publication by Robert Mager titled Preparing Instructional Objectives (Webb 2013). They are, however, getting renewed interest as many higher education institutions look at the assessment and outcome alignment within their courses and programs (FitzPatrick, 2015).

Let's examine how to reframe your course goals and outcomes into the desired results in a way that sparks their interest and intellectual curiosity using the backward course design framework.

Reframe Outcomes into Desired Results

"To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you're going so that you better understand where you are not so that the steps you take are always in the right direction."

Stephen R. Covey. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Backwards design diagram

Backward course design focuses on developing and deepening student understanding of important ideas by focusing first on the course outcome or desired results. The desired result is the point of your course, a mission statement that translates what the course means and how students' understanding can be translated into performance. The challenge is to express this course goal in one sentence that sparks students' interest and get's them intellectually engaged in the content!

There are generally five kinds of desired results in education (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p.342)

  1. factual or rule-based declarative knowledge,
  2. skills and processes,
  3. understandings, insights derived from inferences into ideas, people, situations, and processes;
  4. habits of mind, and
  5. attitudes.

Backward Design Goals, Understandings, and Essential Questions

To reframe desired results using the Backward Design framework, think about:

  • Course Goals: what relevant goals will the course design address? Consider content standards, course or program objectives, and learning outcomes.
  • Understandings: what will students understand? what are the big ideas? what specific understandings about the big ideas are desired? what misunderstandings about the big ideas are predictable?
  • Essential Questions: what provocative questions will foster inquiry, understanding, and transfer of learning?
  • Knowledge and Skills: what key knowledge and skills will students acquire as a result of this unit? what should they eventually be able to do as a result of applying this knowledge and skills?

Remember the Understanding by Design Template introduced in Design Courses Backward? Use these tools to help you reframe your desired results.

Define Learning Objectives: Knowledge and Skills

Taxonomies exist that help you define what students will be able to know and do as a result of achieving course goals. These taxonomies define levels and dimensions of thinking and learning along with strategies best suited for each level or dimension. Check out both Bloom's and Fink's Taxonomies as one may resonate more with you and the desired outcomes you want students to achieve.

There are many useful resources to assist you in defining SMART learning objectives:

Defining learning objectives is an art and a science. Expect to revise and fine-tune your objectives. Share them with colleagues to get advice and reach out to Learning Innovation & Technology to assist you.

The next step in the process is to determine acceptable evidence to assess your goal. LIT is happy to talk through your course design, provide ideas and support you along the way.