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Writing Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

What are Learning Outcomes?

A learning outcome answers the question: what will students know or be able to do at the end of this lesson, block, or program. The learning outcome informs what you will teach.

According to LCME, we must identify the specific, observable, and measurable outcomes for each specific component of the medical program. That would include a lesson, course, clerkship, rotation, etc. (Anderson et al., 2001; McClain, 2016)

"You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there."

-Yogi Berra

Why Outcomes?

Why use the term learning outcomes rather than learning objectives?

  • Outcomes are student focused (What will students learn to do today?) rather than instructor focused (What will I teach today?)
  • An objective is something you are trying to achieve. An outcome is something you have achieved.
  • Outcomes lend themselves to assessment. You can test whether or not a student has achieved an outcome and can demonstrate mastery of content or skills.

Why write learning outcomes? If I know my content, isn’t that enough?

Well written learning outcomes help instructors:

  • Organize the course around specific core concepts.
  • Optimize teaching time by focusing on core concepts and avoiding less relevant material.
  • Improve assessment by aligning testing with key outcomes.

Well written learning outcomes help students:

  • Understand what is important in the lesson.
  • Focus their study efforts on key concepts.
  • Self-assess how they are doing and how they can be successful.

Outcome Alignment

Inverted pyramid

LCME requires medical schools to map program objectives to Physician Competencies Reference Set (PCRS). (Learning Objectives for Medical Student Education Report, 1998). The program objectives at the UCR School of Medicine are identical to LCME accreditation standards. Likewise, block objectives need to be in alignment with program objectives, and course outcomes need to align with block objectives. Finally, individual lesson learning outcomes must align with course outcomes.

How to Write Learning Outcomes?

Begin with an end in mind

Ask yourself what students should know or be able to do by the end of your lesson. You may want to review the Physician Competencies Reference Set (PCRS) to see if you can use any of the items verbatim (Englander et al., 2013). The competencies may be too broad for your specific lesson outcome, but you may be able to borrow some of the language.

A learning outcome begins with a stem like this: "By the end of this lesson, students will be able to..." 

The stem is followed by an active verb. If you use Bloom’s Taxonomy you can find action verbs that directly relate to the level of learning desired.

Once you have a draft of your learning outcome, ask yourself if it meets the three main criteria.

  • Is it specific?
  • Is it observable?
  • Is it measurable?

Tips on Writing Learning Outcomes

  • Use active verbs. One source for strong active verbs is Bloom’s Taxonomy. A list of Bloom’s active verbs is available to download.
  • Keep to three to five. Most lessons can support only 3-5 learning outcomes. Avoid a laundry list of outcomes and drill down to the most important concepts.
  • Focus on students. The learning outcome should focus on student performance, not instructor performance.
  • Attach assessment. Every learning outcome should have a formal or informal assessment associated with it. What will you accept as evidence that students have achieved the outcome?

Verbs to Avoid

Watch out for verbs that reflect concepts which can’t be measured. Here are a few to avoid.

  • Understand
  • Appreciate
  • Know
  • Familiarize
  • Learn
  • Become aware of

Examples of Learning Outcomes

Good Example

"Apply principles of epidemiological sciences to the identification of health problems, risk factors, treatment strategies, resources, and disease prevention/health promotion efforts for patients and populations."

Why is this a good example?

Alignment: PCRS #2.4 – Knowledge of Practice
Specific: “Apply principles” is a discrete and concrete action
Observable: Student can demonstrate their ability to apply the principles by:

  • Providing a solution to a case study or test question.
  • Demonstrating application of the principles in a simulated setting.
  • Illustrating application of the principles either in writing or orally.

Measurable: An instructor can determine the level of competency the student must demonstrate.

Poor Example

Students will grasp the significance of the principles of social-behavioral sciences to provision of patient care, including assessment of the impact of psychosocial and cultural influences on health, disease, care-seeking, care compliance, and barriers to and attitudes towards care.

Why is this a poor example?

Alignment: No clear alignment to competencies.
Specific: “Grasp the significance” is vague.
Observable: It is not possible to observe whether or not someone has “grasped” significance.
Measurable: The action is so vague, it is impossible to measure.
Better verbs to describe this outcome would include apply, illustrate, predict, interpret.