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Creating Learning Outcomes

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A learning outcome is a concise description of what students will learn and how that learning will be assessed. Having clearly articulated learning outcomes can make designing a course, assessing student learning progress, and facilitating learning activities easier and more effective. Learning outcomes can also help students regulate their learning and develop effective study strategies.

Defining the terms

Educational research uses a number of terms for this concept, including learning goals, student learning objectives, session outcomes, and more. 

In alignment with other Stanford resources, we will use learning outcomes as a general term for what students will learn and how that learning will be assessed. This includes both goals and objectives. We will use learning goals to describe general outcomes for an entire course or program. We will use learning objectives when discussing more focused outcomes for specific lessons or activities.

For example, a learning goal might be “By the end of the course, students will be able to develop coherent literary arguments.” 

Whereas a learning objective might be, “By the end of Week 5, students will be able to write a coherent thesis statement supported by at least two pieces of evidence.”

Learning outcomes are beneficial to instructors

Learning outcomes can help instructors in a number of ways by:

  • Providing a framework and rationale for making course design decisions about the instructional sequence, content selection, and so on.
  • Communicating to students what they must do to make progress in learning in your course.
  • Clarifying your intentions to the teaching team, course guests, and other colleagues.
  • Providing a framework for transparent and equitable assessment of student learning. 
  • Making outcomes concerning values and beliefs more concrete and assessable, such as dedication to discipline-specific values.
  • Making inclusion and belonging explicit and integral to the course design.

Learning outcomes are beneficial to students 

Clearly, articulated learning outcomes can also help guide and support students in their own learning by:

  • Clearly communicating the range of learning students will be expected to acquire and demonstrate.
  • Helping learners concentrate on the areas that they need to develop to progress in the course.
  • Helping learners monitor their own progress, reflect on the efficacy of their study strategies, and seek out support or better strategies. (See Promoting Student Metacognition for more on this topic.)

Choosing learning outcomes

When writing learning outcomes to represent the aims and practices of a course or even a discipline, consider:

  • What is the big idea that you hope students will still retain from the course even years later?
  • What are the most important concepts, ideas, methods, theories, approaches, and perspectives of your field that students should learn?
  • What are the most important skills that students should develop and be able to apply in and after your course?
  • What would students need to have mastered earlier in the course or program in order to make progress later or in subsequent courses?
  • What skills and knowledge would students need if they were to pursue a career in this field or contribute to communities impacted by this field?
  • What values, attitudes, and habits of mind and affect would students need if they are to pursue a career in this field or contribute to communities impacted by this field?
  • How can the learning outcomes span a wide range of skills that serve students with differing levels of preparation?
  • How can learning outcomes offer a range of assessment types to serve a diverse student population?

Use learning taxonomies to inform learning outcomes

Learning taxonomies describe how a learner’s understanding develops from simple to complex when learning different subjects or tasks. They are useful here for identifying any foundational skills or knowledge needed for more complex learning, and for matching observable behaviors to different types of learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical model and includes three domains of learning: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. In this model, learning occurs hierarchically, as each skill builds on previous skills towards increasingly sophisticated learning. For example, in the cognitive domain, learning begins with remembering, then understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and lastly creating. 

Taxonomy of Significant Learning

The Taxonomy of Significant Learning is a non-hierarchical and integral model of learning. It describes learning as a meaningful, holistic, and integral network. This model has six intersecting domains: knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn. 

See our resource on Learning Taxonomies and Verbs for a summary of these two learning taxonomies.

How to write learning outcomes

Writing learning outcomes can be made easier by using the ABCD approach. This strategy identifies four key elements of an effective learning outcome:

  • Audience
  • Behavior
  • Condition
  • Degree

Consider the following example: Students (audience), will be able to label and describe (behavior), given a diagram of the eye at the end of this lesson (condition), all seven extraocular muscles, and at least two of their actions (degree).

Audience 

Define who will achieve the outcome. Outcomes commonly include phrases such as “After completing this course, students will be able to...” or “After completing this activity, workshop participants will be able to...”

Keeping your audience in mind as you develop your learning outcomes helps ensure that they are relevant and centered on what learners must achieve. Make sure the learning outcome is focused on the student’s behavior, not the instructor’s. If the outcome describes an instructional activity or topic, then it is too focused on the instructor’s intentions and not the students.

Try to understand your audience so that you can better align your learning goals or objectives to meet their needs. While every group of students is different, certain generalizations about their prior knowledge, goals, motivation, and so on might be made based on course prerequisites, their year-level, or majors. 

Behavior 

Use action verbs to describe observable behavior that demonstrates mastery of the goal or objective. Depending on the skill, knowledge, or domain of the behavior, you might select a different action verb. Particularly for learning objectives which are more specific, avoid verbs that are vague or difficult to assess, such as “understand”, “appreciate”, or “know”.

The behavior usually completes the audience phrase “students will be able to…” with a specific action verb that learners can interpret without ambiguity. We recommend beginning learning goals with a phrase that makes it clear that students are expected to actively contribute to progressing towards a learning goal. For example, “through active engagement and completion of course activities, students will be able to…”

Example action verbs

Consider the following examples of verbs from different learning domains of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Generally speaking, items listed at the top under each domain are more suitable for advanced students, and items listed at the bottom are more suitable for novice or beginning students. Using verbs and associated skills from all three domains, regardless of your discipline area, can benefit students by diversifying the learning experience. 

For the cognitive domain:
  1. Create, investigate, design
  2. Evaluate, argue, support
  3. Analyze, compare, examine
  4. Solve, operate, demonstrate
  5. Describe, locate, translate
  6. Remember, define, duplicate, list
For the psychomotor domain:
  1. Invent, create, manage
  2. Articulate, construct, solve
  3. Complete, calibrate, control
  4. Build, perform, execute
  5. Copy, repeat, follow
For the affective domain:
  1. Internalize, propose, conclude
  2. Organize, systematize, integrate
  3. Justify, share, persuade
  4. Respond, contribute, cooperate
  5. Capture, pursue, consume

Often we develop broad goals first, then break them down into specific objectives. For example, if a goal is for learners to be able to compose an essay, break it down into several objectives, such as forming a clear thesis statement, coherently ordering points, following a salient argument, gathering and quoting evidence effectively, and so on.

Condition

State the condition, if any, under which the behavior is to be performed. Consider the following conditions:

  • Equipment or tools, such as using a laboratory device or a specified software application.
  • Situation or environment, such as in a clinical setting, or during a performance.
  • Materials or format, such as written text, a slide presentation, or using specified materials.

The level of specificity for conditions within an objective may vary and should be appropriate to the broader goals. If the conditions are implicit or understood as part of the classroom or assessment situation, it may not be necessary to state them. 

When articulating the conditions in learning outcomes, ensure that they are sensorily and financially accessible to all students.

Degree 

Degree states the standard or criterion for acceptable performance. The degree should be related to real-world expectations: what standard should the learner meet to be judged proficient? For example:

  • With 90% accuracy
  • Within 10 minutes
  • Suitable for submission to an edited journal
  • Obtain a valid solution
  • In a 100-word paragraph

The specificity of the degree will vary. You might take into consideration professional standards, what a student would need to succeed in subsequent courses in a series, or what is required by you as the instructor to accurately assess learning when determining the degree. Where the degree is easy to measure (such as pass or fail) or accuracy is not required, it may be omitted.

Characteristics of effective learning outcomes

The acronym SMART is useful for remembering the characteristics of an effective learning outcome.

  • Specific: they are clear and distinct from others.
  • Measurable: they identify observable student action.
  • Attainable: they are suitably challenging for students in the course.
  • Related: they are connected to other objectives and student interests.
  • Time-bound: they are likely to be achieved and keep students on task within the given time frame.

Examples of effective learning outcomes

These examples generally follow the ABCD and SMART guidelines. 

Arts and Humanities

Learning goals

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to apply critical terms and methodology in completing a written literary analysis of a selected literary work.

At the end of the course, students will be able to demonstrate oral competence with the French language in pronunciation, vocabulary, and language fluency in a 10 minute in-person interview with a member of the teaching team.

Learning objectives

After completing lessons 1 through 5, given images of specific works of art, students will be able to identify the artist, artistic period, and describe their historical, social, and philosophical contexts in a two-page written essay.

STEM

Learning goals

By the end of this course, students will be able to describe the steps in planning a research study, including identifying and formulating relevant theories, generating alternative solutions and strategies, and application to a hypothetical case in a written research proposal.

Learning objectives

At the end of this lesson, given a diagram of the eye, students will be able to label all of the extraocular muscles and describe at least two of their actions.

Using chemical datasets gathered at the end of the first lab unit, students will be able to create plots and trend lines of that data in Excel and make quantitative predictions about future experiments.

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