Developing Student Learning Outcomes

Outcomes can be defined at many organizational levels, but program learning outcomes (PLOs) provide the basis for program assessment. PLOs are generally broader in scope and reflect students’ cumulative learning across courses at the end of a program; however, similar guidelines can be used to develop program, course, or general education learning outcomes (CLOs and GELOs).

Effective learning outcomes have the following attributes:

Learning outcomes are distinct from course objectives.

All learning outcomes should focus on the student. An effective learning outcome will explain expectations for student behavior, performance, or understanding. To ensure that learning outcomes are student- centered, start learning outcomes with the phrase "The student will..."

Keep statements short and focused on a single outcome. This allows instructors to determine whether or not an objective has been met without having to distinguish between partial completion and complete success.

Learning outcomes should provide a description of what the student will be able to do, i.e. some kind of observable behavior, once learning has occurred.

An outcome should have two parts: an action verb and content for that action. To ensure that outcomes are effective and measurable, avoid using verbs that are vague or cannot be objectively assessed.

Hard to measure
Students will...
Still too hard to measure
Students will...
Easier to measure
Students will...
appreciate art. value the contribution of art in society. articulate the role that art plays in society using a written critique of an art work.
demonstrate ethical awareness. understand a real-world ethical problem or dilemma. analyze a real-world ethical problem or dilemma, including those affected.
develop scientific inquiry and analytical skills. demonstrate how to use the scientific method. state a hypothesis from a set of observation, design an appropriate experiment to test it, and analyze and interpret experimental data.

Choose a clear and effective action verb, often aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy, that defines student performance following instructional activities. Action verbs should target an appropriate level for the course relative to its sequence in the program.

Include complex or higher-order learning outcomes when they are appropriate. Most instructors expect students to go beyond memorization of facts and terminology.

Adapted from: University of Arkansas. Teaching Innovation & Pedagogical Support. Bloom’s Taxonomy Verb Chart.

Learning outcomes should be specific and target one expectation and highlight the conditions under which the student is expected to perform the task. The conditions of the outcome should communicate the situation, tools, references, or aids that will be provided for the student.

In addition to informing students of expectations, learning outcomes should provide some indication about how achievement of these expectations will be measured. Faculty can then develop more specific standards of achievement, generally outlined in a rubric, to clarify to what extent a student must perform to be judged as not meeting, meeting, or exceeding expectations.

Adapted from: Cal Poly University. Academic Assessment, Program Learning Outcomes.

ChartUtilize learning outcomes as a basis for planning and preparing courses within a program. Learning outcomes should align with instructional strategies and assessment requirements.

Misalignment of outcomes, activities, and assessments can undermine student learning. For example, if your learning outcome is “Students will analyze historical documents, but your instructional activities focus on presenting facts about the documents’ content, students will not have practiced the skills needed to perform well on the assessment.

Examples of Learning Outcomes by Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy Examples of appropriate assessments
Remember – recall facts and basic concepts
Students will...
Objective test items such as:
  • fill-in-the-blank
  • labeling
  • multiple-choice questions such as “Which of the following defines a...”
Understand – explain ideas or concepts
Students will...
Activities such as papers, exams, problem sets, class discussions, or concept maps that require students to:
  • summarize readings, films, or speeches
  • compare and contrast two or more theories, events, or processes
  • classify or categorize cases, elements, or events using established criteria
  • paraphrase documents or speeches
  • find or identify examples or illustrations of a concept or principle
Apply – use information in new situations
Students will...
Activities such as problem sets, performances, labs, prototyping, or simulations that require students to:
  • use procedures to solve or complete familiar or unfamiliar tasks
  • determine which procedure(s) are most appropriate for a given task
Analyze – draw conclusions among ideas
Students will...
Activities such as case studies, critiques, labs, papers, projects, debates, or concept maps that require students to:
  • discriminate or select relevant and irrelevant parts
  • determine how elements function together
  • determine bias, values, or underlying intent in presented material
Evaluate – justify a stance or decision
Students will...
Activities such as journals, diaries, critiques, problem sets, product reviews, or studies that require students to:
  • test, monitor, judge, or critique readings, performances, or products against established criteria or standards
Create – produce new or original work
Students will...
Activities such as research projects, musical compositions, performances, essays, business plans, website designs, or set designs that require students to:
  • make, build, design or generate something new

Adapted from: Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation. Alignment.