Learning Outcomes

Making a learning outcome SMART


Individual Development Plan for Teaching: 
Setting goals and Creating Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes
Alignment triangle

Modified from CMU, https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/alignment.html

Learning outcomes focus on specific knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that you expect your students to learn, develop, or master (Suskie, 2004). They describe both what you want students to know AND be able to do at the end of the module/unit. They should be used to guide course design – in Engineering Learning – you come up with the goals (learning outcomes) and the way that you will assess those learning outcomes first, then design activities that help students achieve the learning outcomes. Aligning learning outcomes, assessments, and instructional strategies is a hallmark of course design and will set up both you and your students for success. 


Why use Learning Outcomes?
  1. Guide Course Design. Using the Engineering Learning framework, you articulate the goals (learning outcomes) of a learning experience and the way that you will assess those learning outcomes first, then design activities that help students achieve the learning outcomes.
  2. Communicate Expectations to Students. Learning outcomes are meant to be clear messages that help students and instructors know what is expected from them and what they should focus on. In this manner, they are written as student-centered. Learning outcomes focus on student action.
  3. Create Accountability. Learning outcomes specify student actions that are observable and measurable. Good learning outcomes communicate what types of assessment students might expect and can prepare for.
How Do I Write a Learning Outcome?

Learning outcomes are typically structured like this:

By the end of this [TIME PERIOD], students will be able to…[VERB] + [OBJECT].

Learning outcome verbs have two major functions. 

  • Defining measurable action. The verb you chose will communicate the manner in which you assess student knowledge.
  • Defining the cognitive level. The verb you chose will communicate the whether you expect the students to achieve a LOT (Lower Order Thinking) or a HOT (Higher Order Thinking) outcome. 

Both can be achieved by carefully choosing verbs from Bloom’s taxonomy (below) or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (not pictured). 

Example 1: You chose the word “Recall” in your outcome. This is a LOT and can be measured with a LOT-appropriate assessment, like a multiple choice quiz item.
Example 2: You chose the word “Create” in your outcome. This is a HOT and should be measured with a HOT-appropriate assessment, like a collaborative group design project. 

What is a SMART Learning Outcome?

SMART is an acronym that identifies criteria for developing learning outcomes that are:
Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Writing outcomes is no easy task. SMART Goals can help make the task easier. Originally devised by George Doran, the SMART framework helps teachers ensure their outcomes are truly achievable. For Engineering Learning at Mines, we propose writing SMART learning outcomes that adhere to these standards:

SMART Learning Outcome Rubric

Learning Outcomes Rubric




Specific Learning Outcomes

1. Use clear, direct language to tell the learner exactly what he or she should learn and what he or she should be able to do after the course. 2. Use specific action verbs from Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and/or Blooms Taxonomy. 3. Include parameters that help define the conditions or level of mastery expected. For example, “…calculate forces acting on objects which are stationary or moving in a linear direction, ignoring air resistance and friction…” or “…analyze conditions given three variables…”



LOs are written so it is clear what students will be able to do at the end of this course. All three points are addressed well and in language written for students.




Vision of the course is defined through the Learning Outcomes. They are clear and specific at the course level. At least the first two points are addressed well.




LOs are not written in a way that is clear and specific.




Measurable Learning Outcomes

1. The LOs are written as actions that can be observed, using action verbs from Blooms Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to indicate depth of mastery expected. 2. Avoids use of non-observable nor non-measurable words such as “understands” or “knows.” 3. The LOs are written so that any objective observer could watch the learner’s performance and agree if the LO has been satisfied or not.



All three points are addressed and there is coherence across the LOs so that they are all measurable within course parameters. The assessments should be obvious from the LOs.



All three points are addressed such that assessments can be defined or selected based on the LOs.




One or more of the points above are not addressed across the LOs.



Achievable Learning Outcomes

1. The LOs are something the learners have a chance of mastering to the level indicated in the LOs within the course parameters. 2. The LOs are something that can be taught and learned within the course parameters. 3. The LOs are at an appropriate level of mastery for the course and anticipated student background. That is to say that an introductory 100 level course vs a 400 level course on the same content should have different mastery levels. In other words, not too easy, but also not unrealistically difficult.



All course LOs address all three points well and are consistent with the overall goals and vision of the course.




All three points are addressed well.




One or more points are missed or are unclear



Relevant Learning Outcomes

1. The LOs are articulated such that it is clear to students that it is a LO worth learning and achieving. 2. The LOs only include content and skills that are going to be used and/or are of value to the field and course. 3. The LOs help assess if they are worth the time committed to them in the course.



All three points are addressed well.




At least the first two points are addressed well.




Only one or none of the points are addressed. It is unclear if the LOs are relevant.


Timely Learning Outcomes

1. LOs are something that students will need to be able to learn and use within a subset the course time frame (a few days or weeks). 2. LOs indicate the level of mastery expected within the course time frame and in some cases the level of mastery expected across the program, e.g., ABET Outcomes are 4 year goals, where do these LOs fit with that time frame? 3. LOs indicate if there are any time constraints on the performance, e.g., complete 5 iterations within a 50 minute period.



All three points are addressed well.




At least the first two points are addressed well.




Timeliness is not clear or articulated in the LOs.


Example Course Learning Outcomes

The following learning outcomes have been pulled directly from Mines course syllabi to show the breadth and depth of learning outcomes across all disciplines. 

  • Describe the properties and processes common to all cells, including exchange with the external environment, transport across selectivity permeable membranes, homeostasis, and the enzymatic promotion of chemical reactions
  • Use microeconomic models to predict (graphically and/or mathematically) the behavior of economic agents, the outcomes of markets, and the impacts of government policy in a variety of market environments
  • Characterize the difference between devices of the same “family” (BJTs vs. MOSFETS, lasers vs. LEDs vs. photovoltaics)
  • Design solutions to mitigate geological risks associated with natural and man-made slopes and underground excavations in rock
  • Apply the apparatus of linearization, nullclines, conservation and dissipation to analyze linear and nonlinear differential equations
  • Calculate the velocities and accelerations of rigid bodies in general plane motion
  • Identify the primary types of bonds in a substance, and types of intermolecular forces, if present
  • Recognize and address the ethical issues arising from data collection and statistical and machine learning
  • Define the process for attaining professional engineering licensure and explain the reasons that professional licensure is important for engineers
  • Model and analyze single-input single-output (SISO) systems using both transfer function and state space realizations in continuous-and discrete-time
  • Communicate written mathematical arguments and statements that are complete and logically ordered, through the use of standard notation and terminology
  • Apply decline curve analysis methods to estimate ultimate recovery of petroleum reservoirs. 
Example Teaching Professional Development Learning Outcomes and Plans

By the end of this semester, I will be able to:

  • Design activities that explicitly help students make connections to their prior knowledge. I plan to do this through piloting two activities in the next semester.
  • Develop rubrics that will make my grading expectations clear to students. I plan do this by adding rubrics to major assignments in my course.

By the end of this year, I will be able to:

  • Write SMART learning outcomes. I plan to start this with my Math 300 course and solicit feedback from my Trefny colleagues.
  • Identify effective strategies that can be used by other faculty to facilitate student discussions in class. I plan to lead a professional learning community with other faculty in my department, being sure to invite new faculty, to share experiences with facilitating discussions in our classrooms.