Creating Outcomes that Guide Learning

Make Intentions Explicit

What Is It?

The Cheshire Cat in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland film famously told Alice that whatever way she went was of no matter since she did not care where she ended up. It is precisely the destination we have in mind that guides the paths taken to get there. This aphorism remains true especially in the classroom, where the intentions that we have for our students as emerging scholars, professionals, and enlightened individuals should dictate how and what we teach. These broad goals are best documented and communicated through the student learning outcomes (Suskie, 2009) that become part of our syllabi and course planning.

Easily understood, appropriately calibrated, and sufficiently specific outcomes can promote what Suskie calls “lasting learning” (2009, p. 133) by creating a student-centered learning environment. Being “student-centered” means that the focus is on what knowledge and skills the student has acquired and is able to demonstrate at the end of a course rather, than on the nature of the content covered (Kennedy, 2007).


TIP #1:  One way to craft an effective student learning outcome is to place it in the context of a broad learning goal that can be further clarified into a learning objective, which is then detailed in a learning outcome (Barkley & Major, 2016). An example of this refinement process is illustrated below:

Course NameLearning GoalLearning ObjectiveLearning Outcome
Introduction to International BusinessStudents will acquire knowledge of international business terms and concepts.Students will demonstrate understanding and appropriate use of international business terms and concepts.In the oral presentation of their term project, successful learners will use and apply international business concepts appropriately in their language and supporting material.

(Barkley & Major, 2016, p. 15)

TIP #2: The specificity and demonstrability that distinguishes a learning outcome from a goal or objective often hinges on the verb that is chosen for the action that students will be able to accomplish at the end of a course. Understanding or becoming familiar with essential disciplinary concepts are common verbs associated with learning goals; however, since it is not possible for an instructor to “see” understanding and familiarity, they are not appropriate verbs for a learning outcome. More appropriate verbs suggest actions that students can demonstrate, such as choosing, identifying, solving, or applying (Kennedy, 2007).

The crafting of learning outcomes is an important part of the course design process. Much like the foundation of a building, learning outcomes define a course’s parameters and thus enable students to work toward the learning goals that you have in mind. The clear understanding of what students should be able to know and do by the end of the course, as articulated through learning outcomes, allows both you and your students to focus on what activities, interactions, and experiences will accomplish those outcomes.


Barkley, E.F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning assessment techniques. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kennedy, D. (2006). Writing and using learning outcomes: A practical guide. University College Cork.  Retrieved from

Suskie, L. (2018). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.