The Why and How of Learning Outcomes

Today, crafting learning goals and outcomes to ensure the quality of education in higher education is standard practice. However, it wasn’t until about 20 years ago when accreditors began to add learning goals and outcomes as a requirement, that it became common.

Intended student learning outcomes describe what students should know or be able to do at the end of an academic program. Consequently, statements should be objective, measurable, and comprehensive.

Colleges and universities are expected to put in place objective measurement tools to understand the degree to which students have retained knowledge. Schools are also expected to make changes to their educational programs based on objective data on student learning. Finally, learning outcomes helps higher education institutions demonstrate to external stakeholders their commitment to quality education.

Understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy

First, we must understand the foundation of Bloom’s Taxonomy as it primarily guides our development of learning outcomes. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom, along with a group of educators, developed a framework for differentiating various forms and levels of learning. The framework consisted of the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. The domains consists of a multi-tiered structure for classifying learning according to increasing levels of complexity. In this framework, each level of learning is a prerequisite for the next level.

In higher education, the cognitive domain has been the primary focus for writing learning objectives. Bloom’s original taxonomy named the following levels of cognitive learning, arranged from low to high: comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

In 2001, a former student of Bloom’s, Lorin Anderson, and other experts in the field of learning and assessment, published a revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The updated version of the taxonomy utilizes verbs or “action words” instead of nouns to name the six cognitive levels. Also, the top two cognitive level are switched. The revisions provide a more dynamic model for categorizing learners’ intellectual processes in acquiring and using knowledge.

The verbs we use are key to developing effective learning outcomes.

In Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can utilize verbs to describe the cognitive levels in written objectives (learning outcomes). For example, verbs used for the lowest level may consist of define, recall, or recognize. The verbs for the highest level of learning, creating, could be formulate or build. You can easily find several tables that provide a comprehensive list of verbs and the corresponding cognitive level with a quick internet search. Still, we have also provided a link to one we found here:

However, when choosing the verbs, it is important to consider how well you will be able to measure that particular outcome. For example, it may be challenging to measure whether a learner appreciates something or has confidence in a subject. You are more likely to be able to measure their ability to identify or understand with knowledge-based assessment, but it is easiest to measure a student’s ability to demonstrate or explain. Therefore, ensure when you determine the verb, you ask yourself if the outcome is measurable and how you will measure it.

In academic programs, the lower level verbs are often used for undergraduate programs, and as a person progresses in their education, the majority of verbs used for the development of learning outcomes belong to the higher levels, such as evaluating and creating.

Writing learning outcomes in practice

When drafting a learning outcome, several vital parts include an action verb, subject content, level of achievement, and condition of performance, if applicable. These outcomes then are paired with a rubric to determine a learner’s proficiency or progress within that particular outcome.

Below you will find a formula that you can use to write intended learning outcomes.

Students will be able to + verb + object + optional modifiers

In this formula, we start with “Students will be able to…,” to establish our subject. Then we follow that up with the verb relating to the desired action or performance associated with the intended cognitive level and ending with the object of the statement describing the learning that students are expected to demonstrate. Finally, modifiers are used to indicate the conditions or criteria for performance or to further clarify the intention of the knowledge.

Measuring your learning outcomes

There are several ways to measure your intended student outcomes. Measurements can be formative at the course-level or summative at the program-level. Additionally, you may want to utilize a mix of both direct and indirect measures. Direct measurement would include standardized assessments, final projects, or term papers. Indirect measurement includes satisfaction surveys, interviews, and evaluations.

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Bloom, B. S. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing a revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York, NY: Longman.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and Writing Intended Learning Outcomes Statements. (2014-2016). International Accreditation Council for Business Education. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from