Articulate Course Goals and Learning Outcomes

Before course-level assessment can begin, it is critical to articulate the goals and outline the learning outcomes of the course.  Without clearly explicated course goals and learning outcomes, it is not possible to assess whether the course is effective. Why do we need both?

  • Course goals provide the big picture of the course for you and for your students; these set out a direction for the course and sometimes beyond.
  • Course learning outcomes provide achievable and assessable elements of those goals.

Both goals and learning outcomes should assume successful completion of the course.


Course Goals Guidelines

  • Course goals should be broad statements of what you want your students to be able to do or care about by the end of the course.
  • Course goals should be student-centered, not teaching-centered: "students will learn to..." rather than "this course will teach..." or "in this course, I plan to...".
  • Course goals may use "fuzzy" general verbs like "understand," "appreciate," "value," "perceive," and "grasp," which are not appropriate for learning outcomes.
  • Course goals need not use observable and measurable verbs, which must be used for learning outcomes.


Learning Outcomes Guidelines

  • Just like course goals, learning outcomes should be learning-centered, not teaching-centered: “students will be able to…” rather than “students will be exposed to…”.
  • Learning outcomes should use specific action verbs that identify clear, measurable, observable outcomes (for examples, see the information on Bloom’s taxonomy and the chart below).
  • Learning outcomes should avoid verbs such as “understand,” “appreciate,” and “value,” which are not necessarily observable or measurable.
  • Learning outcomes should be limited to one verb unless it is known that students will always do and accomplish both things in the same assignment or task. For example, if they will always analyze before drawing conclusions, then using both verbs in a single learning outcome is appropriate.  However, verbs that don’t always happen together in course assignments will become more complicated to assess if left in the same learning outcome.

When creating learning outcomes, it is also important to make sure that they directly connect to the assignments and activities in a class. In order to measure whether the learning outcomes are being met, there must be assignments and activities designed to specifically address them.


Examples of Course Goals and Learning Outcomes

The examples below represent a variety of course disciplines and class contexts. Remember, while course goals can be more general, learning outcomes must be observable and measurable so it is possible to assess whether they have been met during the course.

Example 1

Goal: By the end of this course, the successful student will understand the scientific method. 

Learning Outcomes: By the end of this course, the successful student will be able to do the following:

  1. Distinguish between a hypothesis, a theory, and a law;
  2. Define each of the above from a scientific experiment;
  3. Outline the steps of the scientific method for each lab experiment;
  4. Generate predictions, based on the outcomes of each lab experiment; and
  5. Maintain the distinction between predicted and observed results, even if the lab experiment fails to produce the expected results.

Example 2

Goal: This course is intended to equip students with skills needed to locate, gather, and use information intellectually and responsibly. 

Learning Outcomes: By the end of this course, students should be able to accomplish the following:

  1. Demonstrate the ability to locate and gather information through libraries, the world wide web, and "field" research methods, such as interviews and surveys;
  2. Evaluate the sources of information;
  3. Analyze, summarize, and synthesize information from diverse sources;
  4. Apply information gained through research to a given situation;
  5. Communicate to others information, conclusions, and arguments through writing and the use of tables, graphs, and other visual rhetoric; and
  6. Appropriately cite sources of information.

Example 3

Goal: Students will learn how to consistently and skillfully use critical thinking to comprehend the world and reason about situations, issues, and problems they confront. 

Learning Outcomes: Students will learn how to do the following:

  1. Identify the elements of reasoning when thinking about personal, professional, and civic situations, issues, and problems: its purpose(s), the question(s) to be answered or problem(s) to be solved, the requisite information or evidence required, inferences made and assumptions they are based on, concepts and principles being used, implications or consequences of the reasoning, and points of view or frames of reference being used;
  2. Skillfully use the universal intellectual standards of clarity, accuracy, relevance, precision, logicality, breadth, depth, completeness, significance, and fairness to assess and evaluate the quality of reasoning used when considering each the elements of reasoning in Outcome One;
  3. Reliably and consistently engage in rational thinking by recognizing and avoiding their own and others' egocentric and sociocentric biases; and
  4. Exhibit the intellectual traits or dispositions of intellectual humility, intellectual autonomy, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, intellectual courage, confidence in reason, intellectual empathy, and fair-mindedness.


Evaluating Goals and Outcomes

Writing course goals and learning outcomes can be a difficult process since it requires us to be very explicit with our expectations and plans for the course. Here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself (or a colleague) after you have drafted versions of your course goals and outcomes to ensure that they are clear and understandable.

  • Are these course goals or learning outcomes or both?
  • Are the course goals written using appropriate verbs?
  • Are the learning outcomes written using active, observable, measurable verbs? Can you imagine ways that they could actually be assessed?
  • Do they complete the sentence stem, “Upon completion of the course (or some other milestone), the successful student will be able to…”?
  • If an outsider read these goals and outcomes, would they be able to understand the course goals and learning outcomes as written?
  • What questions would I want to ask if I were a student about these course goals and learning outcomes?
  • Are there aspects or concepts that seem to be missing from the course goals and learning outcomes?