07 July 2011

Why writing good learning outcomes isn't rocket science

I was recently asked to put together a one-page cheat sheet for highly intelligent university lecturers unused to writing learning outcomes for university courses (subjects).  Here's what I wrote.

Guidelines for those writing learning outcomes


1. The assessment strategy for a course is designed to provide evidence of how well students have achieved the learning outcomes.

2. The stated learning outcomes of a course align not only with the assessment design but also with the stated purpose and goals of the program/s into which the course fits.

3. Learning outcomes describe what students will be able to do once they have completed the course; they deal with functioning rather than declarative knowledge*.

4. Learning outcomes describe what all students will be able to do if they have passed the course; the assessment strategy will provide the evidence that allows the marker to differentiate between levels of performance.

5. Statements of learning outcomes include descriptions of how students will demonstrate both lower and higher order skills, with a focus on the latter**.


1. Each course needs 3-5 learning outcomes.

2. The statement about learning outcomes begins with the stem “Upon successful completion of the requirements for this course, students will be able to”.

3. Each learning outcome will describe a performance. Learning outcomes typically relate an action to the content taught in the course, describing how a student will demonstrate that he or she is able to apply the knowledge gained in the course, e.g. in solving a problem, completing a task, or analyzing or critiquing an issue or situation relevant to the course, the discipline and/or the profession.


Upon successful completion of the requirements for this course, students will be able to:

• Critique the notion of “alignment”,
• Compose statements of learning outcomes appropriate to the course, and
• Design an assessment strategy to collect evidence of how well students have achieved course learning outcomes.

* Declarative knowledge: "... propositional ... knowledge refers to knowing about things, or 'knowing-what': knowing what Freud said, knowing what the terms of an equation refer to, knowing what kinds of cloud formation can be distinguished, knowing what were the important events in Shakespeare's life. Such content knowledge accrues from research, not from personal experience. It is public knowledge, subject to rules of evidence that make it verifiable, replicable and logically consistent. It is what is in the libraries and textbooks and is what teachers 'declare' in lectures." Functioning knowledge: " ... based on the idea of performances of various kinds underpinned by understanding. This knowledge is within the experience of the learner, who can now put declarative knowledge to work by solving problems, designing buildings, planning teaching or performing surgery. Functioning knowledge requires a solid foundation of declarative knowledge." (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p 72)

**Lower order skills include those of knowing and understanding; higher order skills include those of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating. (cf Bloom's Taxonomy - for an interesting take on the Taxonomy, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blooms_rose.svg)

Biggs, J & Tang, C 2007, Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does, 3rd edn, McGrawHill, Maidenhead UK & New York USA.

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