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Indiana University Bloomington

Instructional Consulting

Learning Outcomes

Instructional Support and Assessment Specialist

Articulating Clear Learning Outcomes

Definition of Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes are the specific knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes instructors expect students to acquire or master by the end of a given course. Well-executed Assurance of Learning (AoL) Assessment begins with the clear articulation of learning outcomes that indicate observable student performance and at the same time suggest measurement.

Tips for writing measurable learning outcomes

Writing outcomes that suggest measurement can be challenging, particularly when the outcome involves qualitative work. The following are a few tips for you to consider when writing learning outcomes.

  • Consider the essential knowledge, skills and/or attitudes students should command as a result of taking your course.

    To get started, you may wish to ask yourself, “What should my students be able to do by the end of the course that they couldn’t do before?”  Or, alternately, “If a student couldn’t do __________ by the end of the course, I would be sorely disappointed.”

  • Avoid teacherly thinking.

    For many, the process of writing learning outcomes begins with “teacherly” thinking: we think about what content we will teach and as a result, what our students should know, understand, be exposed to, or appreciate.  Here are some typical examples of “teacherly” thinking about learning outcomes from business disciplines:

    1. Understanding the concept of the time value of money.
    2. We will learn the basics of financial accounting.
    3. Students will be exposed to the principal methods of ethical thinking in business.

    The problem with "teacherly" outcomes is that they remain focused on the inputs in the classroom, that is, what you will teach. In order to do the work of assessment, however, learning outcomes must be stated in the learner's terms. Although instructors surely know what they mean when they say teacherly terms such as understand, know, be exposed to, and appreciate, students do not.

  • Frame learning outcomes around what students must be able to do.

    Such articulation will help learners know what is expected of them. It will also turn the actual measurement of the learning outcomes for assessment into a very straightforward process.

Good examples

Now that we've looked at some tips, let's reframe the three examples above in the learner's terms:

  1.  Students will be able to recommend the best investment strategy for a firm by analyzing various investment options using the concept of TVM.

  2. Given a series of business events, students will be able to create the four basic documents of financial accounting and explain how they relate to one another.

  3. Students will be able to describe the principal methods of ethical thinking in a brief paragraph in their own words.

Notice the persistent use of the phrase “students will be able to.”  Use of this stem nearly guarantees that the learning outcome will be phrased in terms that learners can readily understand.  It also suggests what we can look at and measure for assessment purposes.  Notice also that the verbs used are all actions we can evaluate.  We can look at and assess, for instance, how well a student analyzes investment options and we can evaluate how well a student explains or describes something.  Be sure to avoid words that cannot be evaluated such as “understand” or “know” – these vague terms make assessment very difficult because they do not point to any particular measurable action.