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Developing Measurable Learning Outcomes
Articulating learning outcomes are an important part of developing a good syllabus. Well-articulated learning outcomes help to eliminate any fuzziness and provide a way to evaluate whether your students have learned what you wanted your students to learn.
Developing a Common Language
The terms Goals, Objectives, Competencies, Learning Outcomes and Proficiencies are sometimes used interchangeably but are actually each a bit different:
Goals are what you hope to achieve, but can also include aims outside of the classroom. You may have a goal to provide students with an understanding of the interaction of energy and matter, but you could also have a goal to complete a research project or publish a paper.
Outcomes are the end result rather than the process (how will your students be different because of their learning experience?). At the end of the semester, you may have an outcome that your students “classify ionic, molecular, and metallic substances according to their properties.”
Objectives are the means to the end result. For example, if you wish your students to explain scientific concepts in their own writing, then an objective might be to have them keep a journal reflecting on their experiences or to write an essay.
Competencies (or proficiencies) are used to describe skills rather than knowledge or values.
Performance indicators are quantitative measures of overall performance. If a learning outcome is for students to write with clarity and coherence, then a performance indicator might be the percentage of students who earn a passing grade on a test or rubric.
Benchmarks and Standards are the targets we use to gauge our success, such as students at our peer institutions.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is the best framework for developing course outcomes. It contains three domains of learning: cognitive (intellectual capability), affective (feelings, emotions, and behavior) and psychomotor (manual and physical skills). Within the cognitive domain, there are six progressive levels of knowledge and skills: Knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Using action words allows you to describe the behaviors, activities, or products that will be used to determine that understanding or learning has occurred. As you write, ask yourself, “What will students be able to do or produce as a result of learning that occurs?” Ideally, each course should include learning outcomes from more than one domain (cognitive, psychomotor, and effective). The Learning Outcomes should be the same for all sections of a course. However, each instructor may include on their course syllabi additional outcomes and/or course expectations. Outcomes should focus on big-picture, overarching concepts, skills, or attitudes. They should ask students to apply what they have learned and be written in language that students (and the community) can understand.
Remembering: can the student recall or remember the information?
define, duplicate, list, memorize, recall, repeat, reproduce state
Understanding: can the student explain ideas or concepts?
classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate, paraphrase
Applying: can the student use the information in a new way?
choose, demonstrate, dramatize, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch, solve, use, write.
Analyzing: can the student distinguish between the different parts?
appraise, compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test.
Evaluating: can the student justify a stand or decision?
appraise, argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, evaluate
Creating: can the student create new product or point of view?
assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write.
Avoid using terms such as “students will learn” or “students will understand” because these cannot be measured or assessed. Faculty may not even agree on what constitutes an understanding of a subject so that makes it very difficult to come up with an appropriate assessment of that outcome. For example, if the outcome was “students will demonstrate information literacy skills” it can be better stated as “students will locate information and evaluate it critically for its validity.” Then the outcome can be assessed.
If the outcome was “recognize a need for lifelong learning and plan for personal and professional growth” then it could be re-written as “describe and adopt a plan for ongoing professional development and lifelong learning” and then it could be assessed.
*Adapted from Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide and Bloom’s Taxonomy
Why do we need learning outcomes?
It builds evidence for accountability, accreditation, and improvement.
- Shows evidence of how well our students learn.
- Uses evidence for continuous improvement.