Rethinking Learning Objectives & Outcomes

Written by Jori Marshall & Austin Palaad
August 13, 2019 • 3 minute read


Learning outcomes and objectives are essential to a teachers’ pedagogical practice and the assessment of student achievement. Establishing specific learning objectives and outcomes will effectively guide students in knowing how their learning will be structured throughout the term and what is expected of them. As an instructor, you will see student collaboration with learning objectives and outcomes increase when they are well articulated and student-centered.  

Though the two terms “objective” and “outcome” are used interchangeably, both have explicit meanings; specifically in regards to how they are applied to learning in higher education. This distinction is important and will assist you in managing and assessing student performance. 

Learning Objectives

Learning objectives describe what will be covered in a course or program. Your objectives become the basis by which course material is determined, content is framed, instructional practices are produced, and assessments are prepared. Objectives address what will be learned throughout your course and should utilize language that is free of ambiguity and indicate observable student actions. According to psychologist Robert Mager, your learning objectives should avoid a generalization of complex tasks requested of a student; aiming to make them discrete and defined. Accomplishing this will be able to help students clarify what the results of their learning should be and support them in organizing their own efforts in achieving your objectives. There are many types of learning objectives that you as an instructor can employ including behavioral, non-behavioral (such as developing, understanding, or appreciating a skill), and expressive.

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes define what your students are able to express in knowing or doing at the conclusion of a course or program. Your learning outcomes differ in your objectives in that they are not as precisely defined by you but serve as a framework. They are subject-specific and not expressed discreetly in terms of ‘the conditions in which the outcome should occur’ in the hopes that students will be free to apply what they’ve learned to an issue of their choice. Learning outcomes steer away from the homogenous expectations of a response and are accessible, measurable, and actionable. 

Many learning objectives and outcomes are written with action verbs and are informed by Bloom’s Taxonomy— a model classifying levels of human cognition by level of engagement. Both learning objectives and outcomes are the foundation of a course’s structure, and as a result, they should be constantly reviewed and refined to maximize student engagement and success. 

Redesigning your learning objectives and outcomes will move towards what Matt Spindler of Virginia Tech calls “self-aware innovators”; students who are utilizing learning opportunities that go beyond repetition and memorization. Rethinking your objectives and outcome can aid in cooperative learning and engagement.

The ability to view learning from the perspective of the learner is one advantage of redesigning your objectives and outcomes. This will in turn enhance the quality of learning practiced by students of higher education. According to a study conducted by the University of Leicester, most students consider learning outcomes useful and use them in various ways to support their studies. 

However, data from the study also reveals that the degree to which learning is required to pass assessments is a struggle to understand for some students in regard to learning outcomes. Other students from the study also reported that learning outcomes can restrain their knowledge. Overall, the study found that many students preferred learning outcomes as a key aspect of their learning experience, yet additional work to develop a more efficient use of learning outcomes as a resource for students is needed. 

The introduction of new educational technologies in your course can also result in shifts in your learning objectives and outcomes. When implemented effectively, these technologies can introduce new ways to engage with the curriculum and new skills that your students can carry over to other courses and their professional development. 

Questions and tips to consider for your classroom and/or program objectives and outcomes:

  • Are my learning objectives statements of intentions or are they statements of measurable teaching?
  • Are my learning objectives built around methods involved in collecting and analyzing tangible evidence of student performance? 
  • Do my learning objectives address a wider range of cognitive process and knowledge dimension beyond repetition and memorization?
  • Do my learning objectives simply list topics that will be covered?
  • Do my learning objectives utilize nonmeasurable verbs (e.g., gain awareness)?
  • Does my learning objective focus on the learner, or me? (e.g., the presenter will provide …) .
  • Have I connected with other instructors and faculty to seek recommendations and collaborate methods for developing and revising my learning objectives and outcomes? 
  • Do my learning outcomes align with my course assessments? 
  • Are my learning outcomes observable and actionable? 
  • Are my students actively engaging with learning outcomes and feel connected to them?
  • How often do I check for student understanding?
  • Do my learning outcomes develop self-directed learners?
  • Is the language used in my learning objectives and outcome accessible and understandable to students? 

Your learning objectives and outcomes should not simply be noted on the syllabus and neglected as the course progresses. Find opportunities to check in with students throughout the semester and ask them to reflect on whether they think they’re reaching these milestones. Try to keep assessments grounded in what and how you expect students to engage with course materials. Furthermore, your learning outcomes should be measurable by what students produce in the course — products, artifacts, and performances — rather than the instructional technique or content capabilities. 

In developing your learning outcomes and objectives, it is important to make clear and user-friendly statements that are easily quantifiable. While these are typically discussed within the context of a program-wide assessment, they can be valuable to students by contextualizing and sharpening their learning experience.

Included below are tips on writing effective learning outcomes and objectives, courtesy of the Indiana University Bloomington*: 

*Learning objectives (and outcomes) should … 

  • State in clear terms tasks that your students should be able to do at the end of a course that they could not do at the beginning.
  • Focus on students products, artifacts, or performances, rather than on instructional techniques or course content. 
  • Be student-centered rather than instructor-centered.
  • Explicitly communicate course expectations to your students. 

*The key to writing effective learning outcomes and objectives is the use of active and measurable verbs — tasks you expect students to do at the end of your course. terms like know, understand, or appreciate are vague and broad. Consider, instead, more specific words like the one listed below.

By the end of the class, students should be able to:​​

  • Recall
  • Explain
  • Interpret
  • Compare
  • Differentiate
  • Implement
  • Judge
  • Create

These words progress towards more complex intellectual tasks.

The use of explicit learning outcomes and objectives can provide a useful framework to structure your class. Be sure to look for opportunities to reinforce your objectives and outcomes, such as linking certain activities and assignments to a specific outcome. These statements, while usually only applied during course assessment and creation, can be an imperative standard to guide active student learning in your course. If your students are able to consistently acknowledge why they are learning given information, the significance of their efforts can be made more tangible to them. 

Are you or someone you know finding success with effective learning objectives and outcomes? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Email instructionaldesign@usfca.edu to share your story. 

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To learn how to redesign your course’s learning objectives and outcomes effectively, contact Instructional Design to request a consultation.

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