High-Quality Learning Outcomes

Regardless of how you categorize your learning outcomes, there are universal properties of good learning outcomes to keep in mind.

On this page:

The following sections explain how to make sure your learning outcomes are clear and of high quality.

Focus on the learner

Learning outcomes should be transparent for every course. Each session and/or learning activity of a course may also have concrete learning outcomes intended. It is important for learning outcomes to be written from a behavioral perspective.

Formulating behavioral learning outcomes

Behavioral learning outcomes should:

  • Focus on the learner (the student).
  • Specify what the learner should be able to do at the end of a learning activity or at the end of the course.

How should behavioral learning outcomes be written?

Start with the phrase: “At the conclusion of this course (or activity), participants should be able to:” and then state the things participants will be able to do. Be sure to use specific action verbs (behavioral terms) in these statements—verbs such as identify, cite, describe or assess (see Using Bloom's to Create Variety) for a list of verbs). If you follow this simple format and keep the list of verbs by your side, it is almost impossible to write a bad set of behavioral learning outcomes.

Common mistakes

Verbs such as know and understand are vague. Avoid these words and use action verbs from the list provided. Understanding can have a myriad of meanings, and it can be difficult to evaluate whether a learner understands a concept.

For example, a learning outcome that states that a medical student “will be able to cite the risk factors for breast cancer” can be evaluated consistently as to whether it has been achieved.

Often course proposals list teaching objectives rather than learning outcomes. Examples:

  • “To acquaint the student with the key clinical features necessary for the diagnosis of common rheumatic diseases.”
  • “To update, reinforce, and provide new information regarding the etiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of herniated thoracic disc.”

These objectives focus on what the instructor plans to do, rather than what the learner outcome will be.

Proposals sometimes give objectives that are just a list of topics. Examples: “1. Principles of laser mechanics; 2. Laser uses in the cardiovascular system; 3. Efficacy of lasers in cardiovascular disease.”

This focuses on what the instructor will do rather on what the learner will achieve.

SMART

Check if your learning outcome Is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Sensitive:

Specific
Outcomes should be concrete. If you used words like communication skills, leadership skills and critical thinking, you are not being specific enough. Define what that means in the specific context of your program or service.

Measurable
Can you initially see how you could collect data about this outcome? If you can say “Yes, we can do a survey or focus group or rubric about that” then you are on the right track. If not check with someone who may have more experience with assessment. Sometimes a learning outcome is measurable and you just need to build up your assessment tool set. If you aren’t sure, then try revising your outcome.

Achievable
Can your program/service/workshop/course realistically achieve this outcome? If not, revise your outcome; simplify to make it more achievable. If you have two outcomes in one, you may want to split them up to make it more manageable.

Hint: If you used the word AND in your outcome, you may have written two outcomes in one.

Relevant
Does your outcome align with your initial purpose? Will people find it valuable? If it’s important to align with a larger framework (e.g., strategic plan, learning goals), test the outcome to make sure it lines up with these bigger picture items. If not revise your outcome so that it aligns with your purpose or framework

Time sensitive
Can you easily identify when this outcome will happen? If not, revise your outcome to be more time specific.

Components

Mager (1984) suggests that each learning outcome should include three components:

  • Performance: what the learner will do to demonstrate achievement;
  • Condition: the conditions under which the learner will perform the behavior(s); and
  • Criterion: the expected performance level on the behavior.

For example, in a pharmacy class, a learning outcome written according to Mager’s specifications might be worded like this:

  • Given a patient case description, students will identify all potential drug interactions 100% of the time.
    • The performance is the identification of drug interactions.
    • The condition is having a description of a patient’s case.
    • The criterion is all potential drug interactions, 100% of the time.

Language

Suskie (2009) offers some additional suggestions for the language used in learning outcomes. These suggestions are shown in the table below.

It is important to remember that learning outcomes should be written to reflect what students should achieve by the end of the course, not what instruction will be provided.

High-Quality Learning Outcomes should:  
Focus on the End product What should students know or be able to do at the end of the course?
Avoid vague or Fuzzy Terms

Example
Students will appreciate diverse perspectives.

 

Better
Students will demonstrate consideration of divergent perspectives in their analysis of historical events by outlining the key views held by at least two key subgroups.

Appropriate Level of Specificity

Too Broad
Students will think critically.

 

Too Specific
Students answer correctly the critical thinking item on the final exam.

 

Better
Students will analyze and evaluate arguments related to reasons for historical events.

Use Concrete Action Words

Too Fuzzy
Know, appreciate, understand, be encouraged

 

Better
Describe, write, create, explain, demonstrate