Beyond intentions: Contextualizing learning outcomes
“After completion of this module, you will be able to…” Does this sound familiar? Have you created statements like this before? If so, it is possible that you have come across Bloom’s taxonomy or the taxonomy for teaching, learning, and assessments (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). The taxonomy is a guide to identify the specific knowledge that students are expected to acquire and demonstrate at the end of an educational activity (i.e., a course, module, lesson). However, connecting the outcomes to the activities and assessments can be challenging. Before we look into a guide and examples of alignment, let’s take a brief refresher at outcomes.
Learning Outcomes Explained
Many of us have heard of several terms to refer to outcomes such as objectives, intended results, aims, and goals. I will use the term outcomes in this blog to avoid any confusion. Overall, educational outcomes are statements of what learners should achieve through their engagement in educational activities and processes that allow them to acquire or construct knowledge (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956). As disciplines differ, so do their outcomes. Instructors can make use of the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) to explicitly focus on the essential cognitive process and the knowledge required in each discipline. With the learning outcomes clearly stated, students know what is important to learn in a specific course or module within a timeframe. In addition, instructors can plan the curriculum and instruction more appropriately.
Oftentimes, learning outcomes are confused with tasks. In other words, the means become the ends. In brief, outcomes refer to measurable intended results in the form of skills, knowledge, content that students are expected to demonstrate acquisition of. Whereas, tasks refer to class work that involves the students in completing, interacting, or producing something to achieve the outcomes. Anderson and Krathwohl proposed a formulaic phrase (explicit or implicit: [Verb phrase + verb phrase]) to convey the intention of a learning outcome and differentiate them from means:
“At the end of this blog post, you should be able to use the concept of alignment to contextualize learning outcomes.”
Learning Outcomes Alignment
The concept of “alignment” refers to connecting the outcomes to the learning activities and assessments. Therefore, alignment is an essential characteristic of high-quality online courses. Alignment ensures all course components work together and are mutually reinforced so that learners are able to accomplish the learning outcomes (Quality Matters Rubric, 2018). See the blog post Alignment by Karen Watte, out OSU Ecampus Director of Course Development and Training for more details.
Learning Outcomes in Action
In my meetings with instructors and faculty workshops, I often hear common concerns about student comments related to the lack of clarity in the activities and assignments. Instructors have realized that they need to make the course components more transparent, connected, or “aligned” to the learning outcomes. While the connection, or alignment, to learning outcomes is a fundamental piece to ensuring quality of the learning experience, this connection should be clearer. In addition, the visibility of learning outcomes can help learners be more intentional in their engagement and ways to integrate their knowledge in the course activities and personal life endeavors (LEAP National Leadership Council, 2007).
Oftentimes the learning outcomes are part of the course activities without making any connection (implicit or explicit) to the course activities. Making the learning outcomes more transparent can help students see why they need to complete the variety of course activities, which affects their motivation. Most importantly the learning outcomes play an anchor role that redefines the activities to engage learners in constructing meaning (Biggs, 2003). For example, Biggs (2003) posits that the learning outcomes refer to “sought-for qualities of performance, and it is these that need to be stated clearly” (p.3) throughout the course components. Above all, we should avoid mere completion of tasks in what Mintz (2020) refers to as “mechanical learning experience” when the task-based approach asks students to linearly complete tasks. In fact, understanding the purpose for learning helps motivate students to be more engaged and invested in the course.
Rather than offering a set of formulaic steps to follow, I invite you to consider a practical strategy and examples as a guide to see the learning outcomes in action. Further, in this strategy learning outcomes are the compass to create learning activities and assessments where students see how the work they do matters beyond the grade it represents. Whether the learning activities you design require students to develop theoretical understandings or apply practical skills, the outcomes will help students see the meaning behind the activities.
Further, the alignment will help students understand the kinds of knowledge and processes involved that in many cases —as the instructors who have shared their concerns with me often note— are not sufficiently transparent. In fact, we learn best when we understand the reason for learning something new. Research supports this and our students understand this too. In what follows is the guide that suggests examining the learning outcomes more closely from the two-dimension approach proposed in the taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). This two dimensions are:
- Knowledge dimension: factual, conceptual, procedural, metacognitive
- Cognitive processes (measurable and observable actions): remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.
By using this two-dimension approach, we can thread the learning outcomes in the purpose and/or instructions of the learning activities and assessments. If we understand that purpose, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, is “something set up as an object or end to be attained’, we can contextualize the outcomes in this “something”. Let’s take a look at the following examples that illustrate how instructors took the learning outcomes to action during the course design process.
Example 1 (Responsible Conduct of Research – GRAD 520)
In this example from a graduate-level class we can see the learning outcomes threaded from within the purpose statement of the Course Reflection Assignment to the instructions.
Course learning outcomes:
- Analyze and defend positions related to responsible conduct of research.
- Apply a process for ethical decision-making and apply it to research situations where there are conflicting ethical values
- Identify and analyze the moral values and ethical principles, relevant facts, and affected stakeholders in scholarly research
Example 2 (Business Spanish – SPAN 319)
This example from an undergraduate-level language class shows how both module outcomes become the essential part of the purpose statement in a discussion board.
Learning outcomes module 2 (translated):
- Describe the concept of enterprise and its components to a Spanish speaking audience
- Create dissemination material that facilitate promote an entrepreneurial project
Example 3 (Human Development and Family Studies – HDFS 460)
This example from this undergraduate-level class shows the outcomes from multiple weeks aligned to a multi-stage assignment overview.
Weekly learning outcomes (multiple outcomes):
- Critically analyze who shapes policy (e.g. Who is excluded and why?) (week 3)
- Analyze different ways that families are marginalized in social policy (week 4)
- Compare differences in family policies in the US and other countries based on how they are formed through government and other social programs (week 5)
- Identify cultural, market economy, and social safety net factors that influence what families look like over time (week 6)
By contextualizing the outcomes we can help students understand better why they do what they do. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the learning outcomes guide the design of the course activities, while they also leave room for creativity and unintended learning to occur (Biggs & Tang, 2011).
Special thanks to Sandi Phibbs, Ph.D., instructor of GRAD 520; Emily Malewitz-Davis, instructor of SPAN 319, and David Rothwell, Ph.D., and Kylee Probert, instructors of HDFS 460 who graciously agreed to share the examples from their online courses.
Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. Higher Education Academy, 1(4).
Biggs, J., and Tang. C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. Berkshire, UK: McGraw-Hill Education.
Krathwohl, D. R., & Anderson, L. W. (2009). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Longman.
National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. (2007). College learning for the new global century. A Report from the National Leadership Council for the Lbetal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities
Mintz, S (February 13, 2020). Online Course Design [Webpost].
Quality Matters. (2018). Course Design Rubric Standards for Higher Ed Sixth Edition. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/rubric-standards/higher-ed-rubric, March 2020
Roach, A. T., Elliot, S. N., & Webb, N. L. (2005). Alignment of an alternate assessment with state academic standards: Evidence for the content validity of the Wisconsin alternate assessment. The Journal of Special education, 38(4), 218-231.