My first few rodeos of teaching did not take the learning outcomes [LOs] in my syllabus too seriously.[1] They were window dressings. Today, they significantly shape the courses I create, indeed, they are the foundation. This is my conversion story.

Of course, those familiar with “backwards design” (from the Understanding by Design framework) know the entire process of designing a new class begins with drafting LOs. LOs are the skills, habits, and patterns of thinking that students will cultivate in your classroom. It is worth noting that LOs only have minimal overlap with content. In other words, these define what the students will do with the content. For folks who prefer to start designing their courses by curating appropriate readings, for example, this approach may seem, well, “backwards.” The name “backwards design” reflect this. It also represents the opposite direction from the perspective of the student in the course.

Backwards Design.png

Thinking “backwards” allows us to focus on what matters, to not lose the forest for the trees. Our courses should – or at least can – change how students think or even act, not just what they know. When we just focus on our lecture material or the content of proposed readings, it is easy to forget these larger aspirations. We should not only be concerned with our students learning facts, but what they can do with those facts.[2]

Like many novice instructors, even when I had these grand aspirations the stress of putting together a new syllabus often pulled me back to the “basics” – the basics of deciding reading material and crafting lecture notes. As I was recently telling several new instructors, I did not appreciate the power of LOs because I was struggling day-to-day. I had long given up on the big picture. In my experience, even after the first time I designed a course starting from the LOs, I was unconvinced by their ultimate value.

After I built up some confidence teaching – specifically getting my “reps” in teaching freshman writing, an explicitly skill-based course – and learning I could survive day-to-day, I became dissatisfied with my assessments in my other courses. Uninspired quizzes, midterms, finals, and papers were the rigmarole. I soon started to think the problem was how I was conceiving of my courses’ role in the lives of my students. Did I just want them to memorize facts and become trivia masters? By continually focusing on texts I also funneled my assessment onto low-level tasks of comprehension and memorization.

Inspired to try and have my students train in higher-level orders of thinking, most specifically in analysis and evaluation, I first changed my daily reading assignments. Instead of having students summarize the main argument, I asked them about their opinions (gasp). Specifically I asked them which passages struck them as interesting and why, which passages were confusing and why, which passages were they critical of and why. In other words, I started to think “backwards.” My students were now directly practicing – sometimes imperfectly[3] – the skills I wanted them to develop. Class conversation immediately perked up. This was a small revelation. My thinking process then filtered up into the types of essay prompts I devised. Now, all of my assessments are derived from my LOs. My reading and lectures are – and I only mean this in a relative sense – irrelevant (shun me if you must).

In my retelling, the crux of my conversion story fall upon tyring to reconceive my assessment strategies. Now, when I think about readings, I also have to consider their capacity to help me reach the objectives I have set for my students. Sometimes, this forces me to “create” a lot more (like podcasts), but in return I also ask students to “create” a lot more – I consider this a win-win.

What Does a LO Look Like?

There are many many many introductions to crafting Learning Outcomes online, here are my crib notes:

Well written Learning Outcomes:

  1. Tell the studentwhat they will do (not what the teacher will do).
  2. Use “thinking” action verbs that help measure the level of learning (see Bloom’s taxonomy)
  3. Refer to specific content (and/or clearly telescope to particular assessments, i.e. are measurable)
  4. Are concise and clear

Generally, a LO will often take the form: Actor/student + Bloom’s taxonomy verb + topic/content/related activity/assignment.

Also, it is advisable to exercise these verbs and phrases from all LOs: learn, know, understand, appreciate, be aware of, and be familiar with. I’ll admit, these are often the terms we instructors think with when we causally reflect on our classes. But these actions cannot be measured in an activity, assignment, or exam.


[1] I don’t want to get into too fine grained detail, but there is a distinction between “learning outcomes” and “learning objectives.” In my run down, objectives refer to the content of the course or goals of an activity (think: list X, discuss Y, state Z), while outcomes reflect what the student will do to achieve that objective (think: analyze, evaluate, create). The latter, being more directly student-oriented, are often included in course syllabuses. In practice, however, these terms are often interchangeable. Specific differences in objective and outcomes are discussed here.

[2] There are clear disciplinary differences here. From my many consultations with instructors and teaching assistants from across disciplines, skills are more at the forefront of STEM (think: how can I apply this formula to this problem). Unfortunately, folks in the humanities (students and instructors) too-often think memorization of content is the apex of learning.

[3] This point is often overlooked. For the most part, students have been trained to summarize – this is the easiest thing to test on standardized tests. Thinking with the text is a new skill, please do not think students will all be masters at this skill immediately, it needs to be modeled, practiced, failed, and retried.

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