Higher education units are designed in a structured way. Part of the backbone of this structure are learning outcomes that detail what a student is expected to learn from participating in a unit. This article will delve into some approaches to write learning outcomes and also learning objectives that students can use to help guide their learning. When entering a unit of study outline in Sydney Curriculum, you will notice that only student learning outcomes are required, and these are defined in University policies.
What’s the difference between a learning outcome, a learning objective, and even a threshold concept? The process of writing learning outcomes can take time to hone and evaluation is ideally completed regularly based on Unit of Study Survey feedback and curriculum re-design, with input from colleagues and one’s own experiences teaching.
What are learning outcomes anyway?
So what then is the difference between a learning outcome, learning objective and a threshold concept? All terms help a student map out their progress and journey through a course, regardless of what stage or degree progression they are at. Transparency in these terms helps an educator take a student-centred approach to curriculum design.
- A threshold concept represents knowledge that a student must understand before they can progress with their learning. Threshold concepts are described as “portals” that can make learning transformational.
- Learning outcomes on the other hand describes what the student should be able to do after they engage with content or participate in an activity. The wording of learning outcomes can lay the expectation for a level of required knowledge, skills or practice in a way that is measurable and outcomes based. Importantly, the Learning and Teaching Policy 2019 defines learning outcomes as “statements of what students know, understand and are able to do on completion of a unit of study, a major, program, award course, or other curriculum component.”
- A learning objective may describe a task that a student is expected to fulfil as the goal of completing an activity of any type.
The table below provides a sample of what a threshold concept, learning outcome and learning objective could be in the field of nutrition education.
|Threshold concept||Learning outcome||Learning objective|
|Nutritional therapy can help to manage important health conditions||Identify and prescribe appropriate nutritional therapies to manage and treat common conditions||Differentiate between a low carbohydrate and ‘smart’ carbohydrate diet|
|Standalone knowledge? Yes||Standalone knowledge? No||Standalone knowledge? Yes|
You will notice that the statements contain specific verbs such as “identify”, “prescribe” and “differentiate” that provide a goal for what students are to achieve. Some are higher-order than others and this is typical. You may also notice that all the statements are student-centric and this is on purpose.
If a student was to fail to achieve the threshold concept, they would struggle to achieve the learning outcome. They may still be able to obtain the learning objective, but could not fulfil the outcome without mastering the objective. In this way, knowledge is a spider’s web, with each piece of knowledge acting as a thread in the overall web. This is what you see in the final row of the table in the standalone row.
Why have learning outcomes?
One of the most important reasons to have a clear and well-designed set of learning outcomes is that these statements are the links between teaching and assessment in each unit. If a learning outcome cannot be traced to how an assessment measures a student’s knowledge, skill or ability to demonstrate practical application of knowledge, then the learning outcome or assessment should be revised. Some ways you see this alignment taking place can be in the language of an outcome being replicated in an assessment’s instructions, rubric or marking criteria. It could be that the theme in the learning outcome underpins the assessment task itself, or all of those combined. These steps help to ensure that a unit has constructive alignment and pedagogical rigour.
This essentially means that a student is getting the maximal opportunity to have a positive and effective learning experience. The benefits for the educator themselves are tangible – the current Unit of Study Survey circulated at the end of each semester to each student asks them if they thought “the learning outcomes and expected standards were made clear to me”, which can be maximised through careful design, transparent display and explanation from the beginning of a course.
So what could the process be to write sets of learning outcomes?
Writing good learning outcomes
I would recommend starting with a brainstorming session that asks questions that this previous Teaching@Sydney post poses; what do students need to know, learn and be able to do? A Head of Discipline or colleague may offer suggestions and can provide sounding boards or check out similar units at other universities. Draw on their outcomes to help you see what standards are required.
If creating outcomes for accredited units, goals can help you pick verbs to use in each statement. Bloom’s revised taxonomy is helpful in writing learning outcomes as it categorises learning goals and suggests matching verbs for each type of goal. The overarching goals are: i) remembering, ii) understanding, iii) applying, iv) analysing and v) creating. Ordered in a progressive way, the latter categories require higher order thinking than the earlier goals. Verbs that fall under each category can be woven into rubrics, learning outcomes and objectives and also threshold concepts. Some people find it helpful to play around with post-it notes to brainstorm from this taxonomy.
Bloom’s definitions of types of learning and matching verbs are seen below:
- Exhibiting memory of previously learned material by recalling facts, terms, basic concepts, and answers.
- Some matching verbs: Choose, define, find, how, label, list, match, name, omit, recall.
- Demonstrating understanding of facts and ideas by organizing, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptions, and stating main ideas.
- Some matching verbs: Classify, compare. Contrast, demonstrate, explain, extend, illustrate, infer, interpret, outline, relate, rephrase, show, summarise, translate.
- Solve problems to new situations by applying acquired knowledge, facts, techniques and rules in a different way.
- Some matching verbs: Apply, build, choose, construct, develop, experiment with, identify, interview, make use of, model, organise, plan, select, solve, utilise.
- Examine and break information into parts by identifying motives or causes. Make inferences and find evidence to support generalisations.
- Some matching verbs: Analyse, assume, categorize, classify, compare, conclusion, contrast, discover, dissect, distinguish, divide, examine, function, inference, inspect, list, motive, relationships, simplify, survey, take part in, test for, theme.
- Present and defend opinions by making judgments about information, validity of ideas, or quality of work based on a set of criteria.
- Some matching verbs: Agree, appraise, assess, award, choose, compare, conclude, criteria, criticise, decide, deduct, defend, determine, disprove, estimate, evaluate, explain, importance, influence, interpret, judge, justify, mark, measure, opinion, perceive, prioritise, prove, rate, recommend, rule on, select, support, value.
- Compile information together in a different way by combining elements in a new pattern or proposing alternative solutions.
- Some matching verbs: Adapt, build, change, choose, combine, compile, compose, construct, create, delete, design, develop, discuss, elaborate, estimate, formulate, happen, imagine, improve, invent, make up, maximise, minimise, modify, original, originate, plan, predict, propose, solution, solve, suppose, test, theory.
Examples of rewritten learning outcomes are seen in the table below. In the left column are learning outcomes that I myself wrote years ago with the best of intentions. The redesigned outcomes show development in the language, specificity and they leave the door open to better links to assessment that measured the outcomes. Moving from the verbs “understand/identify/recall” to “evaluate/differentiate/critique” shifts the expectation of the student to be proficient in lower order thinking skills to those that are higher order. Assessment tasks that measure a student’s ability to achieve the skill and knowledge could replicate the language in the instructions and/or rubrics.
|Original learning outcome||Revised learning outcome|
|Understand the effect that diet can have on chronic health problems||Evaluate the impact of dietary therapy on managing and treating chronic disease states|
|Identify the key micronutrients||Differentiate between the solubility and digestion of vitamins C, A, E and the B group|
|Recall nutrition models and their use in creating a healthy diet||Critique the national Australian Dietary Guidelines and their suitability of use in designing tailored eating plans|
If this is a daunting skill to rework learning outcomes as a newer educator, the Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies (Higher Education) or the MPLF course may be beneficial. However you make your way through the process of writing learning outcomes, make use of resources that the University provides and lean on the expertise of your colleagues and support staff to make the experience as effective as it can be for you and your students.