Writing Course Objectives and Outcomes

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.

Why Think about Objectives and Outcomes?

Teachers and administrators study course design to ensure that:

  1. What the department is obligated to teach in a given course at a given level in a given program is actually taught
  2. The alignment of intention of the course, instruction, and assessment are clear and firmly aligned
  3. Course work is driven by the desire to meet designated outcomes rather than to “cover material”

This tutorial will explore:

Defining and Creating Course Objectives

Course objectives represent the overarching purpose of the course. They speak to the general course goals and frequently link the goals to the summative intention of the program in which the course is located. By definition, objectives speak to changes that will take place as result of successful completion of the course; as Ralph Tyler (1949) noted, “Since the real purpose of education is not to have the instructor perform certain activities but to bring about significant changes in the students’ patterns of behavior, it becomes important to recognize that any statement of the objectives of the school should be a statement of changes to take place in the students.”

Here are three examples of statements containing course objectives:

  • Cold War History: The purpose of this course is to improve students’ understanding of the Cold War, how it shaped the present, and to improve students’ historiographical and literacy skills.
  • The Psychology of Physical Rehabilitation: The purpose of this course is to prepare students for internships and their professional roles as physical therapists, to deepen their understanding of the psychological complexity of recovery, to improve students’ communication skills, and to foster empathy for patients.
  • Middle Management in Corporate Environments:  The purpose of this course is to acquaint students with various types of corporate environments and with current theories about what constitutes effective middle management in those environments, and to train students to recognize when models of practice might be appropriate in one environment and not another.

Course objectives are dynamic as they may be adapted to changes in professional practice in the field, shifts in the developmental needs of students, and revisions of departmental standards. Course objectives ideally embody the consensus of a given faculty on what foundational knowledge and competencies are essential for the course. (Diamond, 2008). 

Defining and Creating Course Outcomes

Course outcomes articulate course objectives. They are behavioral in nature as they represent activities students will perform that demonstrate their understanding and ability to apply procedures, think critically, comply with requirements, effectively communicate ideas, recall vital information, synthesize knowledge, and learn independently (Tyler, 1949). Course outcomes identify the things students will do in order to meet the course objectives.

Here is an example of course outcomes based on the example of statements containing objectives from Cold War History (above)

  • Students will identify the origins of the Cold War and trace the chronology of major Cold War events from 1917-1991
  • Students will compare and contrast the ideologies and agendas of capitalism and communism as articulated by various scholars and statesmen
  • Students will describe the essential differences between the traditional, Marxist, and revisionist schools of historiography and apply their knowledge to the interpretation of Cold War events
  • Students will describe the long-term effects of the Cold War in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East
  • Students will conduct independent research and compose a thesis paper that illustrates their ability to properly use and document sources

While this is not an exhaustive list of course outcomes, it exemplifies activities crafted to meet the course outcomes.

Course outcomes do not always originate in the university. As preparing college students for employment in a given profession requires curriculum that is aligned with standards of practice in the field, course designers often turn to the field for guidance. Professional standards in the field may be translated into course outcomes (Benner, et. al. 2010); for example: curriculum developers in a school of nursing may want course outcomes to be aligned with the Quality and Safety Education for Nursing (QSEN) competencies as promoted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2013).

Advanced Course Design: Knowledge Type, Metacognition, and Bloom's Taxonomy

The complexity of course design may increase as instructors incorporate competencies from a variety of sources and as instructors integrate outcomes reflecting declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, and conditional knowledge as illustrated in the table below.

Table 1: Types of Knowledge and Sample of Outcome Reflecting the Type of Knowledge in a course on Botany

Knowledge Type
Description of Type
Outcome Reflecting Knowledge Type
Declarative Regards facts and information  foundational to understanding a subject or concept Students will define photosynthesis, identify the parts of a tree, and identify the benefits of cultivating certain plants in urban spaces
Procedural Concerns knowing the steps necessary to complete tasks such as problem-solving, operating technology, and organizing research Students will demonstrate the proper way to gather, preserve, classify, and archive pollen samples
Conditional Refers to knowing when and under what conditions a specific procedure, idea, strategy, technique or principle might be appropriately applied Students will evaluate the benefits and detriments of conducting invasive studies in forests that are fragile or endangered

 The complexity of course design may also increase as designers incorporate outcomes aimed at improving students'  metacognitive skills (Kaplan, et. al., 2013; Richhart, et. al. 2011; Anderson, et. al., 2008; Amundsen, et. al. 2004). As Table 2 indicates, metacognitive skills can be cultivated in a variety of ways. Because metacognition is not directly observable, instructors often assess student improvement of metacognitive skills by reading or listening to what students have to say about their own experiences which may be captured in journals, reflective essays or surveys.

Table 2: Metacognitive Skills and Strategies to Cultivate Them

Knowledge Type
Description of Type
Outcome Reflecting Knowledge Type
Declarative Regards facts and information  foundational to understanding a subject or concept Students will define photosynthesis, identify the parts of a tree, and identify the benefits of cultivating certain plants in urban spaces
Procedural Concerns knowing the steps necessary to complete tasks such as problem-solving, operating technology, and organizing research Students will demonstrate the proper way to gather, preserve, classify, and archive pollen samples
Conditional Refers to knowing when and under what conditions a specific procedure, idea, strategy, technique or principle might be appropriately applied Students will evaluate the benefits and detriments of conducting invasive studies in forests that are fragile or endangered

 

 

The complexity of course design is also impacted by the level of cognitive activity instructors want to stimulate and develop. Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives (Anderson, et. al. 2008) offers course designers a “template” for integrating higher level thinking skills. In the original taxonomy. Bloom identified six types of cognitive objectives; in ascending level of complexity they are: knowing, explaining, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating. As illustrated in Table 3, Blooms Taxonomy can be used as a template for developing course outcomes.


Table 3: Bloom's Taxonomy and Samples of Outcomes in a Course on Public Health

Level Of Taxonomy

Sample of Learning Outcome

Knowledge

Define accessibility, morbidity rate, mortality rate, vulnerable population, and the Affordable Health Care Act; Identify the symptoms of tuberculosis, typhus, malaria, and alcoholism

Comprehension

Describe the conditions that are likely to produce typhus and how the disease is transmitted; Diagram the stages of alcoholism

Application

Design a brochure that is aimed at prventing typhus in a community of low-literacy; Organize and manage a booth at the county fair where people can get screened for and educated about hepatitis B

Analysis

Compare and contrast the efficacy of two different treatments for alcoholism; calculate the cost of inoculating 50,000 people for small pox and graph the projected outcomes on a specific population

Synthesis

Compose a report with recommendations for a regional response to hepatitis that is based on findings from current research and data from regional clinics and hospitals

Evaluation

Determine the efficacy of a local campaign to test and treat hepatitis B; Assess the significance and credibility of a campaign speech addressing affordable health care

References

Dolansky, M. A. & Moore, S. M. (2013). Quality and safety education for nurses (QSEN): The key is systems thinking. The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, 18, 2013. (2013). About QSEN.

Amundsen, C., Winer, L. & Gandell, T. (2004). Designing teaching for student learning. In Alenoush Saroyan and Cherly Amundsen, (Eds.) Rethinking teaching in higher education, pp. 71-93. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Richard E. Mayer, R. E.,  Pintrich, J. R., Raths, R. J. & Wittrock, M. C.  (eds.) (2000) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Benner, P., Sutphen, M., Leonard, V., & Day, L. (2010). Educating nurses. A call for radical transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Diamond, R. M. (2008). Designing and Assessing Courses and curricula. A practical guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kaplan, M., Silver, N., Lavaque-Manty, D., Meizlish, D., & Rhem, J. (2013). Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning across disciplines across the academy. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Richhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learning. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Tyler, R. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press. p. 44.

Additional Resources

Examples of Course Objectives and Outcomes with Bloom’s Taxonomy: HIST 345: The History of the Cold War, PDF

University of North Carolina, Charlotte. (2013) Writing Objectives using Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Using Bloom's Taxonomy to Sequence Writing by Rachel Van Hor Leroy. Digital Commons, Georgia Southern University.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.