Top Ten Reasons Learning Outcomes are Important

In this essay, I discuss the importance of crafting well-written learning outcomes that aid instructional designers in developing quality course designs. I look back to an early time pivotal in my development as an instructional designer and curriculum specialist. I outline my top ten reasons why I believe well-crafted learning outcomes are vital to the work we do as instructional designers. This is the first in what I hope to be a three-part series on learning outcomes.

It all began when …

In 1999, I moved to Columbia, SC, and started my doctoral program in curriculum and instruction at the University of South Carolina. That year, I quit my teaching job, took out student loans, and accepted a teaching and research graduate assistantship in the Wardlaw College of Education. I was ready to begin my journey to becoming Dr. Brown.

During my first year of graduate school, I met Dr. Lorin Anderson, who was a member of the C&I faculty. He would later become a valuable member of my dissertation committee. Lorin Anderson is the co-author of the now-famous book A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and an expert on all things about and by Dr. Benjamin Bloom. You see, Lorin Anderson was a student of Ben Bloom at the University of Chicago. They became close friends and colleagues. So it’s fitting that Lorin, along with David R. Krathwohl, one of the original authors of the seminal “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” would continue this work with a new and revised taxonomy.

In the summer of 2000, I took a course taught by Dr. Anderson that changed my thinking about learning outcomes. As an arts educator and progressive teacher, I’d come to loath the standards-based curricula movement that was enjoying a renaissance in the 1990s -2000s. The course was about standards-based curriculum construction, and the textbook for the course was the near-final draft of his revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This course taught me how to appreciate the beauty of learning outcomes and the importance of standards-based curricula.

The triangle does not appear anywhere in either [the original or revised Bloom’s] Taxonomy. The triangle representation was quite likely designed by someone as part of a presentation made to educational practitioners.

Lorin W. Anderson

Today, you can find the internet filled with articles, links, and images of both the old and revised versions of the Taxonomy. Many sites wrongly display the two versions in a triangular form, while some elect a more creative approach. Whatever its representation, the revised taxonomy has become the industry model used to devise optimal learning outcomes.

Learning is …

Teaching and learning are intentional, reasoned acts. When we design instructional activities, we do so using content that has been deemed important to know. Ralph Tyler, the great grandfather of American curriculum construction and author of what became known as the Tyler Rationale, concluded that a behavior change was the intended result of instruction.

Many instructional designers and SMEs will agree that as a result of the instruction, the learner’s behavior is changed; at least, that’s the hope. For example, as a result of some training, a server improves his accuracy of recording a customer’s ticket, or a customer service representative improves her ratings. The primary purpose of our work as instructional designers is to create intentional and reasoned acts that change people’s behavior for the better.

Behavior ≠ Behaviorism

Anderson and Krathwhol (2001) are clear in their revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy that what Ralph Tyler was concluding was not to be confused with behaviorism – the popular cognitive psychology of the 1950s & 60s. Behaviorism focuses on conditioning and stimulus-response theory, which many referred to as “rat psychology.” When Ralph Tyler was qualifying learning as a change in behavior, he was not inferring that learning was about manipulation or control. On the contrary, he was interested in stating the purpose and intent of learning, and the experiences need to attain the learning, thus resulting in a change in one’s behavior. Unfortunately, Tyler was writing when behaviorism was popular in curriculum design, and Tyler was often labeled as a behaviorist.

Learning outcomes are …

Outcome statements are the roadmap instructional designers use to plan their courses. These statements define the knowledge (we’ll get more into this in the second part) and the cognitive processes or the mental abilities needed to learn something. Outcome statements or learning outcomes, sometimes referred to as objectives or goals, should be constructed using the revised taxonomy table. This model, created by Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, illustrates the two significant dimensions – the knowledge dimension and cognitive process dimension.

https://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/effective-teaching-practices/revised-blooms-taxonomy/

My Top Ten List

Learning outcomes constructed using the revised taxonomy table, stated in measurable ways, are important for many reasons. But the most important reason is that when an instructional designer crafts a solid learning outcome, what results is an unmistaken, solid instructional design. Moreover, using the taxonomy matrix can help build better communication with stakeholders and create a stronger product.

  1. They allow the instructional designers and SMEs to examine the course design from the learner’s perspective.
  2. They allow the instructional designer and the stakeholders to ask if the learner really needs to know or do this.
  3. Well-crafted learning outcomes using the taxonomy give instructional designers and SMEs a chance to step back and look at the full range of instructional possibilities. Instead of relying on the common outcomes that ask learners to remember the facts, understand the concepts, and apply the procedures, you could look at the higher-order cognitive processes for more enriching ways to learn the content.
  4. Well-crafted learning outcomes share a relationship between the knowledge (content) and the cognitive processes (thinking). A solid relationship must be crafted first so that one can develop a sound instructional design.
  5. Solid learning outcomes make the instructional design process easier. When you’re working with SMEs, you’ll hear what they want the learner to know and be able to do, and you can use the taxonomy and the learning outcomes to develop tasks and assessments that reach their goals.
  6. Starting with a set of well-crafted outcomes saves you valuable time. You’ve done the needs analysis, consulted with the content experts, and discussed this with your stakeholders; coming out the gate with clear and measurable outcomes that get to the heart of the learning problem saves the instructional designer time and money and the project team valuable resources.
  7. You will know what to do. When you know the learning outcome, you can better align the course activities with the right assessment tools.
  8. They provide consistency throughout your design. You can design tasks and assessments that are congruent with one another.
  9. They provide a common language to be shared with everyone involved in the project. Often, the instructional designer has little to no prior knowledge or understanding of the SME’s content knowledge, and the SME may have little to no experience in designing meaningful instruction. The taxonomy table and the learning outcomes provide a translation tool that helps different project members communicate better.
  10. Lastly, well-crafted learning outcomes and the taxonomy table help individuals make sense of the wide variety of terms used in education. Furthermore, it provides a way to operationalize your terms so that all players are on the same page using the same terms.

Learning outcomes are not …

Over the many years of working with folks, I’ve seen some pretty horrific learning outcomes. Everything from the learning outcome has two or more cognitive processes to a string of content areas that span the existence of Western civilization. Here’s an example: “The student will apply the method to create a ….” In survey development, we call this the double-barrel approach. You can’t have it both ways in a single statement. It’s the chicken and egg argument. Are we creating, applying, applying to create? What are we doing, and how do we possibly measure this?

The other example is the one I refer to as the “let’s cram as much content knowledge into a single learning outcome as we can” approach. Students will understand the cultural, economic, social, religious, and political dimensions of the ancient Greek, Roman, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Colonial, and Post-colonial periods of history. Seriously? Well, maybe if you’re getting your Ph.D. in European history. A well-crafted learning outcome must contain a single content area paired with a single cognitive process.

While both of those are just plain ol’ bad, terrible, no good outcomes, there are two things that a learning outcome can never be: one, an activity, and two, a test or assessment. These are often misunderstood as learning outcomes because they are either what educators want learners to perform or complete. Let me explain.

Activities

A learning outcome can never be an activity or task. Going to visit a manufacturing facility, writing a performance review, or interviewing a potential employee, are perfectly acceptable activities. They are not learning outcomes because we don’t know the content knowledge nor the thinking required to improve one’s performance. When I work with someone who has difficulty moving past the need for learners to do a task, I ask these questions:

  • What do you need your people to know to do this task well?
  • What kinds of behaviors need to be changed?

When you ask these questions, you get closer to the heart of the issue. It also redirects stakeholders who may want you, the learning professional, just to put the slideshow in the LMS, therefore bypassing the entire L&D process. As a learning professional, this is unethical on many levels. And I hope it further drives the point that an activity like viewing a slideshow is not a learning outcome; it’s an activity. Take a look at this example and see what you think about this situation.

Scenario

Judy requires all of her department heads to complete an annual performance evaluation on every employee they supervise. Unfortunately, many department heads fail to do this accurately and on time. Judy believes that some training is needed to address this issue. She sends me this learning outcome. Department heads will write annual performance evaluations for each employee they supervise and submit them by the required deadline. To develop a training course that prepares the department head to execute and submit the required evaluations, Judy and I need to work together to uncover the cognitive processes and the kind of knowledge needed to complete this task.

  • Do they know how to execute the proper procedures to complete an evaluation?
  • Do they have the skills to differentiate relevant parts of the evaluation protocols?
  • Can they judge the inconsistencies within a person’s performance effectively?
  • Are they able to produce a report that accurately captures a person’s accomplishments?

By examining these questions, Judy and I can develop meaningful instruction that supports learning and performance growth and gets her the performance evaluations she desires.

Test, Assessment or Performance Task

A learning outcome can never be a test, an assessment, or a performance task. Passing a licensure examination, completing a performance, or submitting a document to be reviewed by a team of experts are perfectly acceptable evaluations of one’s knowledge and skills. But they are not learning outcomes. Here are a few examples I’ve seen over the years:

  • The learner will answer 80% of the questions on the examination correctly.
  • The learner will complete 70% of the game in the time allotted.
  • The learner will successfully submit a completed report to the review committee by the established deadline.

These are excellent examples of what we want individuals to do as a result of the course or training. Yet, they are not learning outcomes because they don’t tell us what knowledge and skills are required to complete the tasks, nor do they specify the kinds of thinking needed to understand the material. Passing a test or doing well on a project should never be confused as a learning outcome.

Final thoughts

Phew, that’s a lot! And, I’ve only scratched the surface, which proves the point that crafting well-designed learning outcomes shouldn’t be an afterthought. These statements are critical to the design process and the overall delivery of the course. If you haven’t read Anderson and Krathwhol (2001), you might want to get a copy and read through it. At the time it was written, Lorin focused all of his attention on P-12 education, and that’s understandable given where the field of education was at that time. But I know that this book and the structure of the revised taxonomy will continue to be a seminal text for instructional designers and e-learning consultants.

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