All of our courses start with learning outcomes—short statements identifying what the student will be able to do after the course or the lesson. Learning outcomes are very useful when designing courses because they help us focus only on what matters in the lesson, they help us design appropriate curriculum, and students will know what they can expect.
Not all learning outcomes are created equal. I have included below some quick considerations to keep in mind when you are writing your outcomes.
Instructors are naturally enthusiastic about their topics. Everything about the topic often seems crucially important, and the beauty is in the details. But unfortunately, we can’t fit everything from the textbook into our courses, and this is especially true for a 1-credit course (follow this link to learn more about matching workload to credit hours). Information overload—trying to cram everything in—will leave students getting less out of a course.
The first thing an instructor should ask is: what do I want a student to remember about this lesson in five years? Go for depth, not width of coverage, and the lesson is more likely to stick.
Learning outcomes should state what the student will be able to do by the end of the instructional period, not what the instructor will cover in the lesson. The difference is a matter of perspective. Think about the difference between the following learning outcomes:
- This unit will cover the basics of organizational behavior and the key goals and forces with which it is concerned.
- After this unit, you will be able to define organizational behavior and identify the key goals and forces with which it is concerned.
Which sounds more motivational for the student? The first makes me want to do the digital equivalent of napping through class. The second lets me know what I’ll be able to do after the lesson.
Student-centered learning outcomes goes along with the next criteria: learning outcomes should have measurable, action goals for the student. Consider the following:
- At the end of this unit, you will understand the basics of organizational behavior.
- At the end of this unit, you will define the basics of organizational behavior.
See the difference? How can you measure whether a student understands something? With something so vague, we have no way of knowing whether the student met this outcome. But you can measure whether students can define something.
Measurable learning outcomes are key when it comes to designing appropriate assessments. If I know that I want them to be able to define the basics of org behavior, then I need to design an assessment that asks them to define org behavior, probably some sort of simple recall quiz. If my goal is instead for them to more vigorously interact with the material, I might say that students will be able to defend the basics (possibly in a debate-style discussion format), or perhaps compare org behavior in two different environments or countries (perhaps a dropbox assignment).
If all I ask is that the student understand this basics of org behavior, then short of hooking myself up into their brains Matrix-style (online learning isn’t quite there yet), I have no way of evaluating their understanding of the material.
Let’s pull this all together. I’m still working in my org management course, and I’m working on the learning outcomes for the last unit. There’s still so much about org management that I find fascinating and I want students to be exposed to those things…but I recognize that cognitively, they just can’t absorb it all. So I narrow down the few most important things I want students to achieve by the end of the unit, the things that I want them to remember in five years. I jot them down, and then focus on the first idea. It’s the last unit, so I want to ground the theories we have been covering in reality. I jot down my first item:
- In this unit, we will cover how the major theories of organizational management apply to real situations.
But of course, that won’t do. I don’t want to write an objective for me, I want to write an outcome for them. So, I make it student-centered:
- By the end of this unit, students will internalize how the major theories of organizational management apply to real situations.
Better, but I have to get rid of that “internalize” bit. Of course, that’s what I want to happen, but there’s no way for me to measure internalization of material. Upon reflection, I decide that the best way for them to demonstrate the achievement of internalization is to do the work of actually using the material. Which gives me an idea:
- By the end of this unit, students will use the major theories of organizational management to design an improvement plan for a specific organization.
That works for me. I’m not sure yet in what format I want students to submit their work, whether it’s a paper, discussion, or recorded presentation. Nor have I decided if this is in individual or group assignment. Do I want them to think critically about other people’s improvement plans? If so, I may have to refine this outcome to say “design and evaluate an improvement plan.” Either way, I will probably have to revisit this learning outcome, but it gives me a solid foundation from which to continue my work.
Now I can refine the assignments so they provide me with enough evidence that students met the learning outcomes, and then I will select and write the learning materials to properly prepare them to complete those assignments. Because I’ve decided that this is really the most important thing for students to accomplish this week, I can leave out everything extraneous. I feel relieved from the burden of cramming things in and can focus instead on depth of coverage.