Creating Learning Outcomes for Your Online Course

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Learning outcomes (or objectives) communicate to students what they should expect to be able to do at various times throughout the course. There are several approaches to crafting outcomes for learning. In this article, we focus on creating learning outcomes for online courses with a modular structure.

Creating Measurable Outcomes

The learning outcomes you set for both the course-level and module-level need to be measurable. This typically means that they will include a verb that will allow you answer the question “what will students be able to do?” To determine the measurability of an outcome, it helps to ask yourself: “How will I know that students have learned?”

Ensure that Learning Outcomes are Appropriate

Bloom’s Taxonomy has long been a tool used by educators for determining the level of cognitive skills students need to meet the learning requirements of a course. The pyramid structure in which we typically see Bloom’s Taxonomy depicted shows that the lower levels of cognitive skills (remembering, understanding) need to be accomplished before learners can move on to higher levels (evaluating, analyzing, creating).

When creating the learning outcomes for your course, consider where your course is in the spectrum of your program. Is this an entry-level course for students? If so, then you may find that you will use more learning outcomes that indicate lower level cognitive skills. However, if your course is one of the last that students will take in their program, then you will want to ensure that more higher level cognitive skills are addressed.

Keep in mind that there are always exceptions here. For example, you can easily have a graduate level course mid-way through a program that focuses on one topic not previously covered. In this situation, you are likely to have a wide range of cognitive skills across the learning outcomes as students are not only introduced to a new topic and new ideas, but are also integrating that new knowledge into what they have already learned in the program thus far.

Student-Centered Wording

Another key aspect of writing strong learning outcomes is to present them in student-centered wording. Use terminology that students will understand, rather than either advanced language in the discipline or educational terminology with which they may not be familiar.

One technique that works well is to begin your outcomes with a stem phrase and then continue them using bullet points for each measurable action. For example, outcomes in an entry level Composition course might state the following:

“By the end of this course, students will be able to do the following:

  • Discuss the difference between reader-response and deconstruction critical techniques.
  • Compose a clear and concise thesis statement.
  • Compose a correctly formatted bibliography using APA guidelines.
  • Draft a short proposal for a research paper.”

This makes it clear what students will need to be able to do by the end of the course, and the verbs used here make it easy to determine whether students are mastering the objective. They can also be closely tied to future activities and/or assessments.

Why Module Level Outcomes Are Important

In addition to course-level outcomes, module-level outcomes are important in helping to create benchmark achievements for students as they work toward the course-level outcomes. Essentially, module-level outcomes help break things up into more manageable activities and assessments. For example, using the above course-level outcomes, you might find a set of module outcomes that look like this:

“By the end of this module, students will be able to do the following:

  • List 3 different aspects of reader-response criticism.
  • Discuss 3 different aspects of deconstructionism.
  • Identify whether a passage is using reader-response or deconstructionism.”

Students completing these module-level outcomes would be well-prepared to fulfill the course-level objective “discuss the difference between reader-response and deconstruction critical techniques” on a final paper.

Clarify the Alignment

Showing how everything connects in the course can be especially helpful not only for students but also for the instructor as you work to ensure that there is strong alignment in your course. One of the easiest ways to do this is to note throughout your course how alignment works. This can be done in a variety of different ways, but one way is to add this information after each of the module-level outcomes. Using the above module-level outcomes as an example, here is how this might look in a course:

“By the end of this module, students will be able to do the following:

  • List 3 different aspects of reader-response criticism. (CO 1, Module 1 Quiz)
  • Discuss 3 different aspects of deconstructionism. (CO 1, Module 1 Discussion)
  • Identify whether a passage is using reader-response or deconstructionism. (CO 1, Module 1 Assignment)”

This example identifies which module-level outcomes supports course outcome (CO) 1 and shows where in the module the outcomes will be measured.

If you have course-level outcomes that relate to course-long projects, then you can also make note of this next to your course-level outcomes:

“By the end of this course, students will be able to do the following:

  • Discuss the difference between reader-response and deconstruction critical techniques. (Final Paper)

  • Compose a clear and concise thesis statement. (Final Paper)

  • Compose a correctly formatted Bibliography using APA guidelines. (Final Paper)

  • Draft a short proposal for a research paper. (Module 6 Assignment)”

This clarifies where in the course each of the outcomes will be addressed and can be helpful for students since it adds a sense of relevance to each of the activities and assessments. Additionally, this makes it easy for you to go back through your course and diagnose any alignment issues.

References

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.