Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to sub-navigation
Skip to main content

Writing & Evaluating Outcomes

A learning outcome has three components
  1. A phrase or sentence beginning "Students can" or "Students are able to"
  2. A verb that captures the action the student will be able to take the demonstrates the knowledge (articulate, explain, describe...) or skill (analyze, design, write, develop, create, test...) in question
  3. A concluding phrase that elaborates on the verb (explain how socialization works in everyday life; analyze DNA using electrophoresis)
Strong Versus Weak Learning Outcomes

The below table compares strong and weak learning outcomes.

Strong Direct Learning Outcomes
Weak Direct Learning Outcomes 

Flow from curricular goals

Unrelated to curricular goals or goals are treated as outcomes*

Meaningful: get at faculty interests regarding student learning of relevant knowledge/skills

Not meaningful; selected for ease rather than actual value or meaningfulness; perhaps chosen in a hurry or under pressure

Focus on skills/knowledge to be gained in a specific course, minor, or major

Not meaningful; selected for ease rather than actual value or meaningfulness; perhaps chosen in a hurry or under pressure

Outcome verbs are sharp clear, and specific (write, calculate, explain, predict, describe, create, analyze, evaluate…) and make it crystal-clear what students should know and be able to do at the end of the course/minor/major

Outcome verbs are vague (understand, comprehend, demonstrate an understanding of) and don’t really get at the intended outcome (how exactly  students demonstrate “understanding” or “comprehension”?)

One verb per learning outcome

Multiple verbs per learning outcome 

Brief and to the point – bullet-point length is fine in most cases. “Students will be able to…”

Wordy, packing in multiple ideas and perhaps including assessment demonstrations, which are ideally separated from the outcomes 

Readily observable/demonstrable/measurable through a thoughtful assessment process

Not easy to observe/demonstrate/measure, usually because the verbs are not clear 

Manageable: not too many outcomes (not more than 8 for a course; not more than 20 for a department/program, and fewer can be better)

Unmanageable: too many outcomes, overwhelming as departments/programs try to figure out what to assess and when 

Discipline-specific much of the time

Overwhelmingly general education skills, even within a department/program 

Inviting Students to Help You Evaluate Outcomes

In most cases this table should enable you to evaluate how strong your learning outcomes are, but you might also discuss learning outcome ideas with students with whom you are particularly close (senior advisees, research students) to see how the student would answer questions such as the following:

  • Does the learning outcome make sense?
  • Is the learning outcome written clearly?
  • Does the learning outcome relate to knowledge or skills already learned by the student?
  • Does the learning outcome relate to knowledge or skills that the student expects to learn in the course or during the major or minor?