Developing Effective Intended Learning Outcomes Statements

In Chapter 4 of Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses (2000), Mary E. Huba and Jann E. Freed offer a number of insights about the value of articulating intended learning outcomes, and several practical suggestions for doing so in ways that advance student learning. Below is a summary of their key claims.

Benefits of formulating intended learning outcomes (pp. 94-98)

  • Intended learning outcomes form the basis of assessment at the course, program, and institutional levels.
  • Intended learning outcomes provide direction for all instructional activity.
  • Intended learning outcomes inform students about the intentions of the faculty.

Characteristics of effective intended learning outcomes (pp. 98-117)

Huba and Freed’s list of characteristics can be viewed through the lens of our aspirations for assessment at St. Olaf. Effective statements of intended learning outcomes are:

Mission-driven:

    • Consistent with the institution’s mission and the values it represents
    • Student-focused rather than professor-focused
    • Aligned at the course, academic program, and institutional levels

Meaningful:

    • Focused on the learning resulting from the activity rather than on the activity itself
    • Focused on important, non-trivial aspects of learning that are credible to the public
    • Focused on skills and abilities that are central to the discipline and are based on professional standards of excellence

Manageable:

    • General enough to capture important learning, but clear and specific enough to be measurable
    • Focused on aspects of learning that will develop and endure, but can be assessed in some form now

Using Intended Learning Outcomes to Strengthen Student Learning

The explicit articulation of intended learning outcomes can play a variety of roles in sustaining and strengthening student learning.

  1. Promoting awareness:  Students who are aware of where they are going are more likely to get there. Faculty can use statements of intended learning outcomes to promote student awareness of the purposes of the course as a whole or of specific course assignments or activities. Intended outcomes can be included in course syllabi, referenced in the description of a course assignment or activity, or reflected on in exams, online discussions, or course evaluations. The assumption in these efforts is that informed and intentional students learn more effectively.
  2. Checking alignment:  Faculty can examine the alignment of both an entire academic program (a major or concentration), and the content and pedagogy of a single course, with the intended learning outcomes for a major or concentration. At the program level, departments can examine individual course offerings to determine where specific outcomes are being addressed and evaluate whether the structure of the curriculum comports with departmental learning goals. At the individual course level, readings, activities and assignments are opportunities for students both to develop and to demonstrate the learning outcomes associated with a course. Faculty can use intended learning outcomes as a framework for analyzing the work they require of their students, examining the extent to which their assignments reflect the learning outcomes the course is intended to promote.
  3. Enabling assessment:  Students’ papers, projects, examinations, and other tangible evidence of their learning can be evaluated against the intended learning outcomes for the major. Faculty can consider the following questions: What can you learn from the evaluation of your students’ work to help you determine how well your courses are meeting the intended learning outcomes? Can you aggregate your observations of the work of individual students so that you can say something meaningful about an entire class rather than just about individual students? Do you need additional evaluation tools to supplement what you are already doing?
  4. Informing adjustment:  Faculty can incorporate intended learning outcomes into the course evaluations they ask students to complete (which also serves the purpose of further enhancing student awareness of those outcomes). Based on the results, and in light of what they learn from any of the above activities, they can sustain what works well, and identify potential improvements, in relation to the intended outcomes of the course.