Integrate > Workshops > Geoscience and the 21st Century Workforce > Program > Learning Outcomes: A Primer

Developing Program and Learning Outcomes: A Primer

by David Gosselin, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Clearly defined intended curricular outcomes enable a faculty to understand, communicate about, and manage learning through the curriculum more effectively. Clearly stated, well written, learning outcomes are essential to good curriculum design, implementation, and assessment.

Jump down to: Terminology | Designing Learning Outcomes | Writing Learning Outcomes | More Resources

Why Learning Outcomes?

Defining curricular outcomes provides clear guidance on what to expect from a program and its course work to everyone– faculty members, students, administrators, trustees, parents, and legislators. Learning outcomes are student-centered in that they describe what the students should be able to demonstrate.

Articulating learning outcomes for students is part of effective teaching. If you tell students what you expect them to do and give them practice doing it, then you increase the likelihood that they will be able to demonstrate their skills and abilities. By being explicit about your expectations you can improve the odds of you and the learner ending up where you intend to go. If you do not tell them what they will be expected to do, then they are left guessing what you want, which may produce unintended consequences that could end up with them resenting you for being tricky, obscure, or punishing.

Learning outcomes also serve as a guide to the instructor's planning of instruction, delivery of instruction and evaluation of student achievement. Another important attribute of learning outcomes is that they can guide the learner by helping him/her focus and set priorities. All these attributes together allow for the analysis and continued improvement of the levels of teaching and learning.

Terminology Clarification: Goals vs Learning Objectives vs Learning Outcomes

These three terms are often used interchangeably and can be the source of considerable confusion. We are going to use the language of learning outcomes because they describe the measurable skills, abilities, knowledge, or values that students should be able demonstrate as a result of a completing a program of study, a course, or lesson. Using this approach, there are three levels of learning outcomes: program, course, module (e.g., course unit; Table 1). As one moves from program to course to module, there is increase in the amount of specificity and narrowing of the scope of the learning outcomes.

Program learning outcomes describe what you want the overall program to accomplish over the time that the students are participating. Therefore they may be less specific but at the end of the day you should be able to document that your program has accomplished your program outcomes.

Table 1. Relationship of Degree Program, Course, and Class Module Learning Outcomes.

Degree Program


Class Module





Time Needed

One or more years

Weeks or months

Hours or days


Design curriculum

Design units of instruction

Design lectures, daily activities, experiences, and exercises

Adapted from

Designing Learning Outcomes

Start with the Biggest Question: What End does your program have in mind for your students?

Your End should include a description of what the student knows and is able to do as well as describe the personal qualities they will possess when they complete your program in preparation for professional practice. Professional practice broadly defined includes workforce/career preparation, graduate and professional studies and/or life-long learning.

The End you define is a list of statements that describe significant and essential learning that the students will achieve and can reliably demonstrate at the end of the program. Each statement is a program learning outcome.

The big questions fall into categories:

  • For what are they being prepared? (professional competence)
  • What will they know? (cognitive)
  • What can they do? (behaviors and manual or physical skills)
  • What personal qualities will they possess? (affective - attitude or self)

As you develop your learning outcomes, you should address each type of big question about your program.

Categories of Learning Outcomes: Big Questions to Consider

Big Question: For what are they being prepared? (Professional Competence)

  • Societal and Student Focus
    • Career preparation – Professional Workforce, Graduate Study, Lifelong Learning
    • Identification of employment needs
    • Development of professional competence
    • Needs of the local campus area, state, and nation

Big Question: What will they know? (Cognitive)

  • Knowledge-Centered Outcomes
  • Facts, concepts and theories central to the discipline

Big Question: What can they do? (Behaviors and manual or physical skills)

  • Skill-Centered Outcomes
    • Cognitive: Critical Thinking, Problem-solving, Computational Skills
    • Technical: Data Collection Techniques, Measurement Techniques, Technology
    • Interpersonal: Communication, Teamwork, Collaboration, Initiative and leadership

Big Question: What personal qualities will they possess? (Affective - Attitude or self)

  • Value and Disposition Outcomes
    • Open-mindedness and love of knowledge
    • Willingness to learn and modify perspectives
    • Desire to develop personal interests
    • Willingness to take (intellectual) risks
    • Diligence and integrity - perseverance in one's work habits; pursue quality results
    • Humble about one's own importance
    • Social responsibility and ethical awareness
    • Appreciation for diversity

Writing Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes focus on the end result of your teaching. How will you know that the students have learned what you want from them? What does it look like? How will you identify it? They are detailed, specific, measurable or identifiable, and personally meaningful statements that articulate what the end result of a program, course, activity, or process is.

When developing learning outcomes be sure they are S.M.A.R.T.

  • Specific – clear, definite terms describing the abilities, knowledge, values, attitudes, and performance desired. Use action words or concrete verbs.
  • Measurable – Data can be collected to measure student learning. Your learning outcome should have a measurable outcome and a target can be set, so that you can determine when you have reached it.
  • Achievable – Know the outcome is something your students can accomplish
  • Realistic – make sure the outcome is practical in that it can be achieved in the expected time frame
  • Time - When will the outcome be done? Identify a specific timeframe – program, course, activity, module etc.

Structure of a Learning Outcome statement

General formula

subject + action verb + learning statement + criterion for acceptable performance

Subject - student in this context.

  • The student will...
  • Students will...
  • The student should...
  • Students should...

Action verb - identifies the performance to be demonstrated

Learning statement - specifies what learning will be demonstrated in the performance.

Criterion or standard for acceptable performance

Using Action Verbs

Concrete verbs such as "define," "apply," or "analyze" are more helpful for assessment than verbs such as "become aware of", "be exposed to," "understand," "know," or "be familiar with." These latter verbs are unclear and call for internal behavior which cannot be observed or measured.

a. Students will be able to collect and organize appropriate geological data relevant to the specific problem being addressed.

b. Students will be able to apply an evidence-based approach to formulate acceptable explanations for geologic phenomena

c. Students will be able to explain the cultural and socioeconomical differences that influence people's perspectives about the environment.

d. Students will be to evaluate scientific research critically and participate in the research community.

e. Students will appreciate and be able to articulate the value of the development of learning outcomes to improving the quality of educational programs.

f. Each student will be able to use word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation graphics in preparing a final research project and report.

g. Upon completion of the module, students will be able to classify specific educational objectives into the cognitive (knowing), psychomotor (doing) and affective (feeling) learning domains.

h. After completing this program, students will be able to correctly distinguish between forced and unforced climate change.

i. Given the opportunity to work in a team with people from different disciplines, the student will demonstrate an positive increase in attitude towards non-discrimination of race, as measured by a checklist utilized/completed by non-team members.

The following statement may get you started:

As a result of participating in (program, course, activity, or experience), students (subject) should be able to (action verb) + (learning statement and criterion).

Students will be able to {action verbs to describe knowledge, skills, or attitude}

These examples are too general and would be difficult to measure.

1. ...will appreciate the benefits of exercise.

2. ...will be able to access resources at the University of Rhode Island.

3. ...will develop problem-solving skills and conflict resolution.

4. ...will be able to have more confidence in their abilities.

Examples – Still general and HARD to measure...

1. ...will value exercise as a stress reduction tool.

2. ...will be able to develop and apply effective problem solving skills that would enable one to adequately navigate through the

proper resources within the university.

3. ...will demonstrate ability to resolve personal conflicts and assist others in resolving conflicts.

4. ...will demonstrate critical thinking skills, such as problem solving as it relates to social issues.

Examples – Specific and relatively EASY to measure...

1. ...will be able to explain how exercise affects stress.

2. ...will be able to identify the most appropriate resource that is pertinent to their university concern.

3. ...will be able to assist roommates in resolving conflicts by helping them negotiate agreements.

4. ...will demonstrate the ability to analyze and respond to arguments about racial discrimination.

Examples from:

Action Verbs and Cognitive Processes

Learning outcomes should consider the different types of cognitive processes involved in knowledge retention and transfer. Table 2 shows action verbs in increasing order of complexity that are directly related to cognitive processes as defined by Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Skills. Your learning outcomes should strive to get students to more complex learning.

Table 2. Multiple levels of student learning, beginning with the simplest form and ending with the most complex.

Blooms Category


Action Verb

What the

Teacher Does

Learning Activities


Information Gathering

recalling or remembering something without necessarily understanding, using, or changing it

Tell, list, describe, name, repeat, remember, recall, identify, state, select, match, know, locate, report, recognize, observe, choose, who, what, where, when, cite, define, indicate, label, memorize, outline, record, relate, reproduce, underline





Lecture, reading, audio/visual, demonstration, question and answer period, memorize and recite


Deeper Understanding of Knowledge

understanding something that has been communicated without necessarily relating it to anything else

Explain, restate, find, describe, review, relate, define, clarify, illustrate, diagram, outline, summarize, interpret, paraphrase, transform, compare similarities and differences, derive main idea, arrange, convert, defend, discuss, discuss, estimate, extend, generalize, give examples, locate, report, translate






Discussions, reflection, illustrate main idea,


Use of Knowledge

using a general concept to solve problems in a particular situation; using learned material in new and concrete situations

Apply, practice, employ, solve, use, demonstrate, illustrate, show, report, paint, draw, collect, dramatize, classify, put in order, change, compute, construct, interpret, investigate, manipulate, modify, operate, organize, predict, prepare, produce, schedule, sketch, translate





Role plays, case studies, fishbowl activities, construct a model, collection of photographs


Compare and Contrast

breaking something down into its parts; may focus on identification of parts or analysis of relationships between parts, or recognition of organizational principles

Analyze, dissect, detect, test, deconstruct, discriminate, distinguish, examine, focus, find coherence, survey, compare, contrast, classify, investigate, outline, separate, structure, categorize, solve, diagram, determine evidence and conclusions, appraise, break down, calculate, criticize, debate, experiment, identify, illustrate, infer, inspect, inventory, question, relate, select




Acts as a resource

Practice by doing, simulated job settings, write a commercial to sell a product, make a flow chart, put on a play or skit, write a biography, plan an event


Judging the Outcome

judging the value of material or methods as they might be applied in a particular situation; judging with the use of definite criteria

Coordinate, judge, select/choose, decide, debate, evaluate, justify, recommend, verify, monitor, measure, the best way, what worked, what could have been different, what is your opinion, test, appraise, assess, compare, conclude, contrast, criticize, discriminate, estimate, explain, grade, interpret, rate, relate, revise, score, summarize, support, value


Lays bare the criteria


Use in real situations, on the job training, create a new product, write a new language code and write in it, persuasively present an idea, devise a way to solve a problem, compose a rhythm or put new words to a song


Original or new creation

creating something new by putting parts of different ideas together to make a whole.

Create, hypothesize, design, construct, invent, imagine, discover, present, deduce, induce, bring together, compose, pretend, predict, organize, plan, modify, improve, suppose, produce, set up, what if, propose, formulate, solve (more than one answer), arrange, assemble, categorize, collect, combine, devise, explain, generate, manage, perform, prepare, rearrange, reconstruct, relate, reorganize, revise, argue for





Self study, learning through mistakes, create criteria to judge material, conduct a debate, write a half yearly report,

Further Resources

From InTeGrate and related projects


Writing Student Learning Outcomes University of Oregon

Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Domains

Designing a College Curriculum National Academy for Academic Leadership

Developing Effective Learning Outcomes (pdf) - from Northeastern Illinois University

7 Things about Learning Outcomes - University of South Carolina

How to Write Program Objectives/Outcomes (pdf) - University of Connecticut

Program Assessment Handbook (pdf) - University of Central Florida

Learning Outcomes Assessment Planning Guide - Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Exploring the assessment of twenty-first century professional competencies of undergraduate students in environmental studies through a business—academic partnership, Dave Gosselin, Sara Cooper, Ronald J. Bonnstetter, Bill J. Bonnstetter, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, June 2013.

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