Write SMART Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes describe what successful students will be able to do by the end of the course. They are the foundation of your assessments, activities, and lesson plans.

Writing learning objectives is one of the most difficult parts of instructional design because this is where you begin to put into words what the course will accomplish, what learners will do, and what success will look like.

Characteristics of Student Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes must be objective and measurable. In general, learning outcomes have three components: performance, condition, and criterion for success (McArdle 2007).

  • Performance: What should the learner be able to do? How will you recognize learning has happened? This is the verb in the objective. Avoid “fuzzy” words like understand, know, believe that cannot be measured in favor or specific verbs that indicate the method of assessment will happen, such as recite, identify, compare, solve, construct. If your course is intended to change a student's attitude, how will you recognize whether that has happened?
  • Condition: Under what conditions do you want the learner to be able to perform? What resources will they need?
  • Criterion: How well must the learner perform? What is the standard for “acceptable performance”?

Put together, you would have a learning objective that looks something like this: Students will be able to do something using specific knowledge, skills, or resource.

  • Students will be able to apply the content from readings, lectures, and discussions to evaluate the concept of “successful training” from the perspectives of the trainer, learner, and employer.
  • Students will be able to explain theories of design and apply them to create usable and aesthetically pleasing print and online documents.
  • Students will be able to critique the design of existing documents using best practices of typography, graphics, tables, color, and information architecture.
  • Students will be able to create professional documents by analyzing the rhetorical situation of audience, purpose, and context; selecting appropriate format, style, content for that situation; and using U.S. standards of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

SMART Outcomes:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Bloom's Taxonomy is perhaps the best known collection of verbs that describe learning. The taxonomy is arranged in a hierarchy that suggest increasingly sophisticated levels of knowledge and ability. The “Bloom’s Taxonomy Rose” on Wikipedia can be helpful for putting your ideas for assessments into words and for determining the level of complexity that is right for your students.

Bloom's Taxonomy- Learning in Action

Image Source: Bloom's Rose by K. Aainsqatsi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4000460

Connect Outcomes to Assessments

Once you have written your learning outcomes, you can start building the assessments that will help you recognize learning and measure performance.

1. What are your course or unit learning outcomes?

2. What does “successful learning” look like for each outcome?

3. What high- and low- stakes assessment activities would allow students to prove what they are learning?

  • What kind of data will you need to collect?
  • How can you collect that data?
  • How long will it take to analyze the data and give feedback to help students improve?

Do you need to include any university outcomes in your course design?

Many of you will be teaching a course that fulfills one or more of the university graduation requirements (general education, diverse cultures, and writing intensive). This means that in addition to the course objectives you or your program have established, you must design your course to meet the university’s objectives, too.

For example, one course that I often teach is ENG 271w Technical Communication. ENG 271w fulfills 2 general education goal areas and one of the writing intensive requirements. The course is a prerequisite for technical communication majors and minors, and it is a required elective for several other degrees. As a general education course, any student can take ENG 271w to fulfill these graduation requirements. In short, one course can check a lot of boxes for students, and other people and programs are counting on your course to prepare students for work or courses they will take in the future. Thus, the learning outcomes for my course must address the program’s content-specific outcomes plus the ones for both goal areas.

Getting Started

Check the Course Outlines to view examples of existing learning outcomes for courses across the university.

Contact your department chair or curriculum committee chairperson to find out if your course has learning objectives you need to meet.

For more information about writing learning objectives, contact the IT Solutions instructional designers.

Read more tips on writing course goals/learning outcomes and measurable learning outcomes from Iowa State University.