Developing measurable learning outcomes or objectives
Learning outcomes are core to the backwards design process. Even if you have never formally written them out, it's likely that learning outcomes (even unspoken ones) have informed the content of your lectures, your choice of assigned readings and classroom activities, and the standards by which you evaluate your students' work.
A learning outcome is a simple, concise statement that tells students what they should be able to do as a result of working through your course. Developing measurable learning outcomes can help instructors and programs determine if learners are achieving the goals we've set for them.
To get a sense of whether students possess the knowledge or skills we want them to have, we need to observe them doing something, such as correctly identifying something or performing some action. When writing learning outcomes, eliminate vague verbs like understand, know, learn, realize, and appreciate – these are open to many interpretations and are not specific. Replace these words with verbs that describe actions students will take to demonstrate their understanding.
Every learning objective should be:
- Taught in the course
- Assessed in the course
- Specific and measurable
Aspirations, which do not satisfy the criteria above, are valuable but distinct from learning objectives. Examples of aspirations include "Appreciate ethics" and "Become lifelong learners". Aspirations can be included in the course description and help the students to understand the instructor's broader goals for the course.
Steps for Writing an Objective
- Choose the desired level of knowledge or skill that you want your learner to demonstrate. Lower-order skills include retrieval (recognizing, recalling, executing) and comprehension (integrating and symbolizing) of information. Higher-order skills involve analysis (matching, classifying, analyzing errors, generalizing, and specifying) and knowledge utilization (decision-making, problem-solving, experimenting, and investigating). Select a verb from the list on this worksheet that matches the desired skill. Remember, the verb should indicate a specific, measurable, and observable behavior.
- Assemble your objective. The format of a learning objective is:
Condition and timescale are not always included. For example, the following are well-composed learning objectives:
- Analyze a given data set in Excel.
- Label the bones shown in an x-ray image.
- Describe post-treatment care to a patient during an office visit.
- Given four works of short fiction of contrasting genres, students will be able to match each work with its correct genre.
- Given a case description, students will be able to identify legal and ethical issues and suggest plans of action.
Create an objective for each concept students will be expected to master by the end of the course.
- Review your objectives to make sure each has an outcome. Double-check that you have not created a list of learning activity descriptions or agenda items (for example, "students will watch a video about XYZ"). Learning outcomes should describe what students should be able to know or do as a result of a learning experience.
When writing learning objectives, ask yourself these questions:
- Does the objective focus on student performance?
- Is this skill taught and assessed in your course?
- What criteria will I use to establish that the objective has been reached?
A typical class meeting often covers 1-3 learning objectives. It is helpful for students to identify those objectives before the class proceeds.
Watch out for these common mistakes:
- Listing desired mental states, indicated by the words know, understand, learn, appreciate, value, etc.
- Making a mental state sound like a learning objective by using "camouflage verbs" such as demonstrate and show. For example "Demonstrate an understanding of interviewing techniques."
- Listing the steps that are actually included in another learning objective, making them redundant. This is referred to as scaffolding. For example, these five learning objectives:
- Identify research priorities
- Use effective online search strategies
- Identify gaps in the research literature
- Formulate a good research question
- Produce a research proposal <-- This is the only learning objective required because the first four are required steps.
- Listing course activities rather than skills obtained in the course. For example:
- Attend a professional presentation
- Complete an online survey
- Observe a professional practitioner
- Work collaboratively