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Writing High Quality Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes – statements that describe what a student should learn to do – serve as the foundation for instructional design. By starting at the end and identifying those things that our students should learn, we can build learning experiences that help our students reach those goals. Learning outcomes can be established over many different timelines. For example, university learning outcomes and program learning outcomes establish very broadly what students should learn over the course of their entire degree programs. On the other hand, course learning outcomes describe what a student should be able to do at the end of the semester and class learning outcomes describe what a student should learn during any given class session.

Why should we use learning outcomes?

A good set of course learning outcomes help to guide our course design. As instructors, we can be intentional about how we spend our class time, what assessments we use, and how we monitor student progress because we know what we hope our students will achieve in the end.  However, for learning outcomes to be as useful as possible, they need to be written with certain characteristics.

What makes a good learning outcome?

For the sake of describing what makes for a good learning outcome, we’ll focus on course and class learning outcomes. These outcomes should meet the “CALMS” criteria; that is, they should be:

  • Clear: Learning outcomes should use clear and understandable language so that students in the course know what they will be expected to do.
  • Attainable: Learning outcomes should be achievable by students at a particular level (e.g., in a 200-level course) in the allowed time. A class learning outcome should be something the student could learn to do in a single class session and a course learning outcome should be something the student would need the entire semester to master. Thus, class learning outcomes are more narrowly focused than course learning outcomes.
  • Learning-focused: Learning outcomes should describe the skills, knowledge, and/or attitudes that students will develop and be able to demonstrate rather than what the instructor will do. Thus, learning outcomes should be written as verb-driven statements that describe what the student will be able to do at the end of the class session or semester.
  • Measurable: Learning outcomes should describe skills, knowledge, and or attitudes that students could demonstrate and which we could observe their growth along the way.
  • Specific: Learning outcomes should be specific enough that we can measure if students can do that particular thing. A learning outcome should thus not be too broad or include multiple skills. A class learning outcome will necessarily be more specific than a course learning outcome because the time which students have to achieve it is much shorter.

Examples of how to apply the CALMS criteria

The examples listed here show learning outcomes which have been revised by applying the CALMS criteria.

Original: Design and present a comprehensive marketing plan for a specific client.

Revised: Design a comprehensive marketing plan for a specific client.

Why it’s better: The revised learning outcome is more specific because it focuses on a single learning goal. It is possible that students might be able to design a marketing plan but not be able to present it (or the opposite, they could present the plan but not design it). By focusing the learning outcome on one aspect of student learning, we’re better able to observe and measure if students have achieved our learning goal.

Original: Learn about cultural variations in nonverbal communication.

Revised: Summarize the implications of cultural variations in nonverbal communication.

Why it’s better: The original learning outcome was based more on the content of what students would be exposed to rather than the kind of skills we expect students to be able to demonstrate afterward. The revised learning outcome is more learning-focused as it describes something students will now be able to do and is something that we, as instructors, could observe and measure.

Benefits of writing learning outcomes which meet the CALMS criteria:

There are numerous benefits to using learning outcomes which meet the CALMS criteria, including:

  • With a good set of learning outcomes, course (or class session) design can be more intentional as we can design learning activities and assessments directly in support of our outcomes.
  • As an instructor, we are reminded that the emphasis should be on what students are getting from the course rather than what we are doing in the course.
  • Learning outcomes can help students see the relevance of what they are learning especially if we, as the instructor, refer back to the learning outcomes at different times in the semester (e.g., on assignments, as we move from one module to another, as outcomes relate to a given topic).
  • Class learning outcomes can be used by students as a study guide since these describe the important things they should have learned to do from each class session.

Instructional design is improved when it is guided by learning outcomes. Those learning outcomes should be Clear, Attainable, Learning-focused, Measurable, and Specific if they are to serve their intended purpose.


Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Outcomes, by Jessica Shabatura from University of Arkansas

Course Learning Outcomes from Northeastern University


Dr. Megan Frary, Coordinator for Graduate TA Support, Center for Teaching and Learning and Associate Professor, Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering, Boise State University

Dr. Tasha Souza, Vice Provost, Faculty Success, Sacramento State