All Aligned – Outcomes

This post is one of a 3 part series on the concept of alignment of what you want students to learn, how you plan to teach them, and what you will assess them on.  Sometimes called constructive alignment, it has three parts:

  • Your learning outcomes
  • Your instructional approach or learning strategies
  • Your assessments

This post focuses on the need for clear learning outcomes for your students, and the next two posts in October and November focus on instruction and assessment respectively.

Why outcomes

Outcomes are statements that describe what our teaching is designed to help students know, do, or be. They start with a verb, then connect that to the key content.  Knowing what they are helps us design instruction that is focused exactly on what we want.

For example, if your goal is to have students

  • Articulate a well-defended argument based on precedent

Then you want to teach them to

  • Use criteria for well-defended to assess and build arguments
  • Find and make sense of relevant precedent

Without a clear outcome about being able to actually make a well-defended argument, you might think your instruction should stop at describing criteria for well-defended, or that a test where students recalled the definition might be better than an assessment where they actually had to make an argument.

Good outcomes help us focus our classes on the knowledge, skills, and values we actually care about our students learning, rather than explaining facts and ideas.  The educator commitments in Our Learning Charter describe being “aware of the range of instructional methods and assessment strategies, and select and utilize teaching methods that are effective in helping students achieve the learning outcome of a course or learning activity” as a key shared commitment of those of us who teach on campus.

More about outcomes

Read the other chats related to Our Learning Charter to learn about other educator commitments.

 

Is Your Instruction Designed to Produce Student Learning?

Lecture is an efficient way to transmit information, especially in large classes. We inevitably feel there is a lot of content to cover, since the gap between what novice students know and expert professors know is large. However, large, uninterrupted blocks of lecture are very inefficient ways to learn, because they are passive. Learners get cognitive overload and stop processing, have trouble paying attention, and remember some ideas that they struggle to apply or connect conceptually.  All of these occur, even with strong learners, and even with instructors who provide exceptionally focused, clear delivery of information. The mind just learns more if it is actively engaged in thinking.

As a method of direct instruction, lecture is focused on a well-organized, clear presentation of information.  Its cousin, explicit instruction, is much better aligned with what we know about how the brain learns, because it is active.

Explicit instruction:

  • students are guided through the learning process with clear statements about the purpose of learning the new skill
  • teachers give clear explanations and demonstrations
  • students engage in supported practice with feedback at intervals throughout the entire class, not just at the end

The key distinction is that while there are periods of telling information, student are asked to demonstrate the skill they are learning and practice it with feedback.  As a result, they are much more likely to remember, make fewer errors, are more focused, and more motivated.  They are also more likely to describe the learning and important and describe how to keep improving. There is clear alignment between the goal of having students understand more deeply, and the activities they are asked to participate in to support their learning.

Why does all this mater?

When we set the goals for what our students will be able to know and do by the end of class (outcomes), we need to think carefully about how remembering information is essential, but not sufficient, learning. We want students to be able to correctly apply the new information in a process, to make decisions and informed judgments, and to use new information for reasoned arguments.  That means our classes need help students develop these competencies and practice them with feedback. Our outcomes, our instruction, and how we assess all need align and work cohesively together to support effective learning processes. If they don’t, we become Professor Dancelot of video fame, with good intentions and little actual learning.

Learn more:

  • Interesting Book: Donald A. Bligh, What’s the Use of Lectures? (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), pp. 252, 11.
  • Oft cited scholarly history: C. Bane, “The Lecture vs. the Class-Discussion Method of College Teaching,” School and Society 21 (1925); B.S. Bloom, “Thought-Processes in Lectures and Discussions,” Journal of General Education 7 (1953).

It’s All About Your Outcomes


Structurally, outcomes are obligations. You need outcomes for your course syllabus, and your program as whole has some form of outcomes. From a teaching and learning perspective, however, an outcome is much more than just a hoop.  It’s at heart of why you’d bother to teach the course you do. Each outcome (and you don’t need that many), describes a skill, disposition, or set of complex knowledge that it is essential for your students to demonstrate to be successful in the course.

What does a good outcome look like?

You can read more about definitions of outcomes (what a student will do) and objectives (what an educator will teach) in another post from Gwenna Moss, but sometimes good examples can help clarify a definition.  A good outcome satisfies key criteria, including:

  • It starts with a specific, rigorous verb that reflects the type of thinking, attitude, or understanding you need students to demonstrate
  • Each outcome is worthy enough that you’ll spend a good chunk of the course returning to it and building your students’ strength with it
  • The outcome is written in language students understand and can explain in their own words

A bad outcome: Understand the definition of a just society

This outcomes is not good because there are too many ways the word “understand” could be interpreted. What would be good evidence of an outcome should be easy for students to understand the same way.  Also, this outcome might be able to be satisfied with a definition from the professor’s PowerPoint, so it isn’t worthy and long lasting enough. It is easy to make the mistake of basically describing content in your outcome, rather than what your students will demonstrate.

A much better outcome: Justify arguments about social justice using precise, accurate examples.

This is better because it specifies the type of thinking and skills student will need to do (justify an argument) and at how (using precise, accurate examples).  Social justice is a complex concept that the course will spend a long time on, deepening student conceptual knowledge overtime. Also, the skill of building an argument about social justice will built upon many multiple times in the course, sometimes in class discussions, sometime in an essay, and sometimes in an examination.  A student reads the outcome and knows the course will help you refine your skills in building arguments, and that the content will relate to social justice.

How do I write good outcomes?

  1. List the key concepts, skills, and dispositions/attitudes you’ll want in the course.  Check to ensure you aren’t just listing content.
  2. Group related things together until you have a smaller number of bigger things.
  3. Try writing statements describing things you’d accept as evidence that a student actually had the understanding, skill, or disposition you are trying to teach
  4. Look at the statements you’ve written, and ensure they each start with an active, specific verb.  Try using this list to ensure you are asking for rigorous thinking, not something students can just memorize and forget.
  5. Get someone who is not an expert to read each outcome and tell you what it says, just to make sure it is clear enough
  6. Double check that each outcome represents something you’ll want to see from students multiple times in the class. If you wouldn’t want to grade things related to it more than once, it is not important enough to be an outcome.