Outcomes and Objectives

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Learning outcomes and objectives are the fundamental elements of most well-designed courses. Well-conceived outcomes and objectives serve as guideposts to help instructors work through the design of a course such that students receive the guidance and structure to achieve meaningful outcomes, as well as guide how those outcomes can be assessed accurately and appropriately.

The Basics of Learning Outcomes and Objectives

Defining terms

While the terms “learning outcomes” and “learning objectives” are used with varied meanings in varied contexts across higher education, at Purdue we try to use them in a more precise manner. By Learning Outcomes we mean a set of three to five goals that reflect what students will be able to achieve or skills or attitudes they will develop during the class. We use Learning Objective to refer to the steps that lead into a particular outcome. By approaching teaching and learning goals in this way, we can help students understand the path toward successful completion of the class. Some people also use the term Learning Goals, and this can be useful especially in discussions with students about what outcomes and objectives mean, particularly if you co-construct one or more outcomes with students; so, while we do not use the term officially, learning goals may be useful in discussions with students.

Represent the result rather than the means

Outcomes define the end results of a student’s successful engagement in a class. It is important to remember that the ends are different than the means. An outcome is not the process with which students engage to reach that goal, but the end result of achieving that goal. In some cases, the end result will be learning a process, but integrating a process into one’s cognitive and skill repertoire is different than going through a process (e.g., the act of learning how to write a research paper is different than the process of writing a research paper).

A note about Foundational and Embedded learning outcomes

At Purdue, many courses are designated as fulfilling foundational and/or embedded learning outcomes. These outcomes are defined at the university level and assessed regularly. They help to define what it means for a student to complete an undergraduate degree from Purdue, and they set Purdue apart for its high standards of student achievement across a range of core topics. Each of the outcome types is approached and handled differently. Check with your department about if/how your class is designated as fulfilling these outcomes, and email cie@purdue.edu if you would like assistance incorporating them into your class.

Writing Meaningful Outcomes

There are numerous strategies for writing effective learning outcomes, and they all have various advantages and disadvantages including more or less structure. One of the most common approaches is to think of outcomes as finishing the following sentence: “Upon successfully completing this course, students will be able to…” This framing emphasizes outcomes as the forward-looking result rather than the means. It also supports transparency by prompting a discussion about what success in the course looks like.

The basics: a verb and an object

If you are just beginning to write outcomes and objectives, try aiming for three components. The following are two similar models that may be useful for thinking through this in your class:

Approach 1:

  • The verb generally refers to [actions associated with] the intended cognitive process.
  • The object generally describes the knowledge students are expected to acquire or construct.
  • A statement regarding the criterion for successful performance.

Approach 2 (from Tobin and Behling’s book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone see page 181 in Chapter 7 for examples):

  • Desired behavior, with as much specificity as possible.
  • Measurement that explains how you will gauge a student’s mastery.
  • Level of proficiency a student should exhibit to have mastered the objective.

The implications of language

We begin with the verb because research into cognitive processes reveals that the verb has profound implications for the type and complexity of cognitive processes. In fact, there are countless lists of verbs, often associated with Benjamin Bloom, a highly influential educational theorist who defined learning around mastery and in doing so began to categorize different types of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor processes based on their difficulty in hierarchical order. In the early 2000s, this work was revised and expanded by a large team of scholars, including adding an additional dimension to the cognitive hierarchy. These verb lists can be misleading, as you may often see the same verb associated with multiple cognitive tasks. We encourage you to use the descriptors in your outcome to identify what students will actually be able to do and ensure that your use of the verb appropriately aligns.

When we ask ourselves questions about the implications of our verb choices, we are often forced to reckon with overused generic terms. The most common example is “understand.” For many, this is the first verb that comes to mind when thinking about what students should be able to do at the end of a course. Consider the popular YouTube series by Wired in which an expert explains a topic at five levels of complexity: a child, a teen, an undergraduate, a graduate student, and a peer expert. At the end of these explanations all have developed or demonstrated an understanding of the concept, but their understanding is vastly different.  One mode of working out outcomes and objectives is to start with “understand” and then add a second verb that clarifies the level (what a student at this level will be able to do). Often this use of “understand” lacks clarity unless we add a second verb, in which case it often become clearer and more precise to remove the generic “understand.”

Be transparent: avoid secrets and highlight challenges

Valuing and caring are legitimate outcomes

Instructors often use what might be termed “secret” learning outcomes or objectives, which are often affective rather than cognitive in nature. For example, in some classes an instructor may want students to appreciate the importance of the subject matter. Often, this involves teaching material that students perceive as tangential to their degree program, but instructors and departments believe is essential. Some common examples involve writing and communication skills, ethics, or legal knowledge in fields where practitioners make use of these competencies every day, but students are often more focused on what they perceive as more quantifiable skills. In the affective learning domain, you may consider outcomes focused on valuing or caring about something (see the alternate outcomes below).

Reveal bottlenecks

Another type of secret or hidden outcome or objective involves something instructors have identified as bottlenecks in their course or discipline. These bottlenecks often reflect ideas, concepts, or skills that may seem small, but when not mastered can pose long-lasting challenges for many students. Sometimes these may seem tangential, like those values described above, other times a bottleneck may be part of a process that students tend to skip (varying modes of checking for errors, for example), or sometimes they require that a student take a different perspective when engaging with a source or problem. Students may often experience these bottlenecks by relying on learning methods that worked with low-complexity topics but cannot handle the complex elements of your course. Some topics are counterintuitive to how we experience the world, and to avoid bottlenecks, students need to overcome their preconceptions and experiences. By highlighting these bottlenecks as explicit outcomes or objectives, making them transparent, pointing to the challenges they pose, and highlighting why it is vital to overcome them, we support students’ long-term success as they move beyond our class as well.

Consider different types of outcomes and objectives

The vast majority of learning outcomes and advice related to outcomes focuses on discrete cognitive skills that are measurable through simple means. For example, a common approach to an outcome may read something like: “Apply the first law of thermodynamics in a closed system.” These discrete and easily measurable skills are vital in many disciplines, but you may also think about learning outcomes that focus on other aspects of one’s life and development. L. Dee Fink, the author of the book Creating Significant Learning Experiences, describes six different outcome categories. The first three deal with these cognitive skills and the second three with affective, interpersonal, and intrapersonal development. By including this second set of goals in our course design and development, we introduce opportunities to support students’ ability to engage in more meaningful ways with each other and, by extension, their feeling of belongingness, connection, and individuality in the class.

  • Foundational knowledge: understanding and remembering information and ideas
  • Application: skills, critical thinking, creative thinking, practical thinking, and managing projects (e.g., the thermodynamics example above)
  • Integration: connecting information, ideas, perspectives, people, or realms of life
  • Human dimension: learning about oneself and others
  • Caring: developing new feelings, interests, and values
  • Learning how to learn: becoming a better student, inquiring about a subject, becoming a self-directed learner

Try treating students as partners around outcomes


While the broad shape of an outcome will almost always be carefully crafted ahead of time, one approach to help students feel connected to the class is to enlist them in co-constructing parts of an outcome. Most frequently, this co-construction revolves around what success will look like, and it is particularly useful when it is an outcome that in which different students can succeed in different ways. For example, in a discussion-oriented class, one of the outcomes may focus on students developing their communication skills through class participation. But personality and other differences may mean that students have vastly different needs in terms of developing these skills. At a basic level, some students may have greater challenges with speaking up and sharing their thoughts in front of their peers and instructor. Other students may need to better develop their skills in listening to peers and responding productively. By approaching this outcome through co-construction, each student can set and be measured by appropriate goals that will pose a challenge to that student and help them develop important skills.

When outcomes are fixed, focus on communicating and responding to students

In most classes, outcomes and objectives are pre-determined and sometimes must adhere to standards beyond an instructor’s control, whether fitting university requirements or those of national accreditors. Especially in cases where outcomes are fixed, it is too easy to assume that students’ goals are also fixed. Even when classes are required as part of a sequence for a major, students often have widely varying goals for their lives and careers, and sometimes even thoughts regarding how this particular class may fit into achieving their goals. When we start the semester, we can ask students about their goals and what they hope to get out of a class and use existing outcomes and objectives to highlight connections and possibilities. Remember that, because students have not yet engaged with this material, they are much less prepared to make the connections. What may seem obvious to an expert instructor may seem opaque to a learner.

One common model for understanding student achievement involves asking students about their success specifically related to the course outcomes. This can be done to gauge their perception of success: As a result of your work in this class, what gains did you make in [course outcome]” or to gauge the effectiveness of specific teaching practices: “How much did the following aspects of the course help you in your learning? (Examples might include class and lab activities, assessments, particular learning methods, and resources).” Both of these questions come from the SALG (Student Assessment of Learning Gains) survey/tool (note: the website is rather dated). Studies demonstrate that, while students tend to overestimate their competence relative to instructors, their input broadly is informative, and when these disparities emerge, they can be useful for instructors to interrogate teaching and assessment practices.

Share and reference outcomes and objectives early and often

Discuss outcomes and objectives in every class session

One of the most common instructor complaints is that students do not pay attention to the outcomes and objectives of a class. This is often a case of mutual neglect. In addition to including class outcomes in your syllabus, highlight outcomes and their connections to objectives in each class session and in instructions for assignments. During class sessions, find opportunities to remind students of these connections. By creating a culture of outcomes and objectives integrated throughout elements of the class, students are better able to follow their progression and understand how different class components and learning integrates and synthesizes with each other.

Build outcomes into the design of assignments

When sharing instructions or guidelines for an assessment, make sure to share and discuss how the assignment fits into the structure of learning outcomes and objectives for the class. See the Creating Inclusive Grading Structures page for more detail and structures.​​​​​​​

Write outcomes that reflect your students’ experiences and abilities

Prepare for different academic experiences

One challenge in planning a class is that it is easy to imagine an idealized student who will enroll in your class. They will have completed certain other classes, possibly had certain experiences, may have certain goals. This ideal student assumption leads many instructors to complain that students were not properly prepared for their class. When writing outcomes, it is valuable to write them for the reality of students present. In reality, students will take a variety of paths, and prerequisite classes may have been completed at other institutions or with a variety of instructors who may have emphasized different elements. Even in situations where every student took the exact same class with the exact same instructor the exact semester prior, students’ strengths and weaknesses with particular topics and skills covered will vary. This does not mean you must re-teach prerequisite courses but building in objectives that highlight particular elements of previous classes will help strengthen and clarify previous learning in addition to helping students identify existing gaps to fill.

Outcomes can reflect a multitude of expressive processes

As outcomes — particularly their language — are intimately intertwined with assessment processes, think carefully about how wording choices may limit students’ ability to express their learning. If the outcome specifies writing, is learning to write in the appropriate format and for the appropriate audience central or is writing one common way (e.g., written language) enough for students to express the more central component of an outcome? What if “write” were turned into “express,” “share,” or “present,” all of which open up greater flexibility in modality of conveying a student’s understanding of content or mastery of skills that are not specific to the written form?

Next Steps


Use the Learning Outcomes Worksheet to practice writing at least one outcome and identifying what category you would place it in. You will find a variety of actual examples from Purdue instructors on the second page of the worksheet.

After you have developed one or more outcomes, view the Creating Inclusive Grading Structures and/or Lecturing pages to consider ways of putting your new outcome(s) into practice in your class.

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