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Analysis for Design and Understanding Learning Outcomes

The first phase of the traditional ADDIE instructional design model is Analysis. In the case of course design, this means:

  • Analysis of your student learners—who are they, what level of knowledge and skills can be assumed
  • Analysis of context for course—where does it fit in the course sequence, what if any are the already established learning outcomes for this course, any content or syllabus template, and whether there are any other accepted purposes or frameworks for this course
  • Analysis of the basic parameters for the course—number of instructional weeks or units; an “inherited” course (if so, what can be added or changed by you) or completely new or the same course but in a shorter or longer or different delivery format, or a set of specific course revisions have been requested

For example, in a hypothetical course, Business Ethics 101, students are undergraduate majors in business or non-business majors who may be taking their first business course. They have had the equivalent of two years of college work and can be assumed to have adequate grasp of basic college writing skills. Many are already working in business related jobs and most are adult learners.

The course is an elective and is not part of a course sequence. The course was previously approved and has ten clear learning outcomes already established. The course exists as a 7-week summer course and the charge is to create a 15-week version, using existing learning outcomes, materials, and syllabus as the basis, but revising to adjust pacing to the nearly doubled length of the course. The business program has also requested that additional readings be considered since many desirable articles had been rejected due to the original intensive and abbreviated course length.

Just a few of the ways in which this analysis could be brought to bear on design are to provide introductory materials and context for business ethics (many students taking first business course), provide assignments and discussion questions that involve real-world situations and invite reflection (adult learners, many already working) and include one assignment that allows students to explore a topic of interest to them in greater depth and to report to classmates on that exploration (short length of course but desire to expose students to more readings).

The Needs of Adult Learners

The vast majority of SPS students are adult learners, busy with both work and family responsibilities. So it’s a good idea to incorporate adult learning principles into the design of your course—not only in regard to the assignments and learning activities, but also to factor these into your approach to communicating and providing feedback to your students, and setting up the class so that students are easily able to share and communicate with their classmates. A few of these ideas are that adult learners are

  1. Self-directed and independent learners (Knowles, 1980)
  2. Have a growing reservoir of experiences that can be used as resources for learning (Knowles, 1980)
  3. Need to know relevance or why they need to learn something (Knowles, 1984)

Carl Rogers (1969, 1982, 1994) emphasized the role of the instructor as a facilitator of learning—someone who sets up the initial environment for learning, organizes content, and makes available appropriate resources for learning. Like Knowles, Rogers recognized the importance of relevance and personal interest for the adult learner. Rogers also noted that acquiring new attitudes and perspectives occurs more easily when the instructor can maintain an environment that is supportive to student exploration. Mezirow (1991, 2000) remarked on the ways in which critical reflection and discourse contributed to transformative learning in which students were able to change their understanding, the ways in which they structured meaning, and their underlying perspectives, and noted that the instructor’s role is to help facilitate or model this transformative process of learning. While these concepts of facilitation and transformative learning are not limited to adult learners, they are especially important for those teaching adult learners.

Here are some tips for applying adult learning principles to teaching and learning in your online course:

  • Create a class atmosphere where students feel respected and encouraged and remain alert to class dynamics
  • Provide structured opportunities for students to question and expose different points of view, and to bring critical perspectives to bear on their own views
  • Clarify the goals and objectives of the course and provide scaffolded paths for complex topics or tasks
  • Establish an atmosphere in which all learners feel secure to question assumptions and to have their assumptions questioned
  • Assist students along the way by providing continuous feedback, resources, and critical frameworks that help them find their own paths to learning
  • Use instructional approaches that provide opportunities for exploration and active participation
  • Draw upon and encourage students to reflect upon and apply learning to their past experience or to real-world situations
  • Create opportunities and structure activities for students to interact and learn together
  • Provide for problem-solving tasks rather than just memorization of content
  • Present instruction in diverse ways that allows students to approach learning from different perspectives, include some elements of choice when appropriate or provide different alternatives for attainment of learning outcomes
  • Clarify learning objectives and intended outcomes as they are manifested in course activities, assignments, and assessments and explain the purpose of instructional content and activities
  • Share your expertise and knowledge but put the focus on facilitating your students’ own learning rather than just imparting information

This Prezi presentation by instructional designer, Erin Soles of University of North Florida explains what it means to scaffold instruction in an online class and how to promote self-directed learning:

Understanding Learning Outcomes

Some who are designing courses are already provided with their course learning outcomes and perhaps the program level outcomes as well; in other cases, those designing the course are charged with writing or revising course learning outcomes. In either case, it is an advantage to understand and know how learning outcomes are relevant to the learning activities, assignments, and assessments you create for your course.

It comes down to a simple fact: Learning outcomes, instructional activities, and assessment all need to be aligned. If they are not, faculty will design learning activities that are only remotely related to the stated learning outcomes, students will have good reason to wonder why they are being asked to do a task, and in the end, student work will not match up with the intended outcomes for the class. Students will no doubt have learned something, but it may not be the learning that was intended to occur!

In brief, student learning outcomes (sometimes called SLOs) are

  • What students should be expected to know or do by the end of the course
  • Observable and measurable actions taken by students
  • The results or evidence of learning, not the activities performed in pursuit of the learning

Sometimes faculty are confused by the difference between course goals and learning objectives/outcomes. Course goals are more generalized and with a larger focus. Objectives or outcomes are more specific and are focused on demonstrable or observable steps toward a goal.

Here are some examples of the difference between a course goal and a course learning outcome:

Goal Outcome
Students will be able to converse in Mandarin Chinese Students will demonstrate a command of the tone system and basic vocabulary of Mandarin Chinese
Students will have a better understanding of the implications of current technology Students will apply current technology to a work-related problem

While in the past objectives were more commonly expressed as “instructional objectives” and focused on what the faculty would do or cover, it has become the norm to instead write “objectives and outcomes” and emphasize the learner’s point of view.

Another common formula to guide the writing of learning outcomes is SMART, an acronym that has many variations:

  • Specific: clear and focused terms that describe expected skills, knowledge, performance
  • Measurable: learning can be assessed through data, observation, or other concrete ways
  • Attainable or Appropriate or Achievable: doable within any limits and boundaries of the learner or course level
  • Relevant: the tasks are relevant to what is to be learned
  • Timebound: can be accomplished in the time accorded

Aligning Learning Outcomes and Course Learning Activities

Before you even begin to think about creating new learning activities or reviewing and revising existing ones in your course, consider a few of these facts about alignment between outcomes and learning activities:

  • Activities and assessments should align with one or more course outcomes.
  • An assessment allows students to demonstrate their learning–if not, one needs to revise the assessment.
  • A specific learning outcome may be expressed in more than one learning activity while a learning activity may demonstrate more than one outcome.
  • A learning activity or assessment may reflect different levels of learning as well.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

What is Bloom’s Taxonomy?

“Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning” was devised by Benjamin Bloom in 1956 to classify and show the continuum of learning from lower-level cognitive processes like memorization to higher-level ones such as analysis and creation. In 2001, the steps were slightly revised by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl to incorporate more recent knowledge about cognition. Often expressed as a pyramid or stack, it looks like this:

By Xristina la (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons
]1 By Xristina la (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ] via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a quick explanation of these different levels:

  1. Remembering: recalling relevant terminology, specific facts, or different procedures related to information and/or course topics.
  2. Understanding: the ability to grasp the meaning of information (facts, definitions, concepts, etc.) that has been presented.
  3. Applying: being able to use previously learned information in different situations or in problem solving.
  4. Analyzing: the ability to break information down and process of examining information to make conclusions, interpret, infer, or find evidence to support arguments.
  5. Evaluating: being able to judge the value of information and/or sources of information.
  6. Creating: the ability to creatively apply prior knowledge and/or skills to produce new and original thoughts, ideas, processes, etc.

What can I use Bloom’s Taxonomy for?

Bloom’s Taxonomy is extremely useful when designing or redesigning learning activities, assignments, and assessments of all kinds, because it makes faculty reflect on what the tasks they are creating for learners are trying to assess. It can check the tendency to offer only rote exercises or the opposite inclination to provide only complex and challenging learning activities when some scaffolding and incremental learning is needed.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is also useful at the earliest stage of design, when faculty are writing learning outcomes for a course or unit. Ultimately, the activity/assessment and outcome need to match, as noted in the Eberly teaching principle #2 (see Module 1): “Effective teaching involves aligning the three major components of instruction: learning objectives, assessments, and instructional activities.”

On active verbs

Active verbs can help you properly assess your activities in light of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This table of active verbs that can be used to write learning outcomes or in writing up assignment directions helps faculty focus on the appropriate level and task for a learning activity.

Source: Texas Tech’s “Writing and Assessing Course-level Student Learning Outcomes”
]2 Source: Texas Tech’s “Writing and Assessing Course-level Student Learning Outcomes”

There are many such tables available online. One can be found at the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center site at http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/resources/Teaching/CourseDesign/Objectives/BloomsTaxonomyVerbs.pdf

A note about these verb tables: There’s a lot of variation among tables as to where in the taxonomy a particular verb fits. It’s important to remember that this is not a science and that particular verbs can be evocative of more than one taxonomic category. Ultimately, your use of the verbs needs to make sense in terms of your learning outcomes or the learning activities themselves.

Things to Think About

  • How much do you know about the students you are expecting to take your course?
  • Have you taught this subject to adult learners in the past? If not, what teaching practices or approaches to assignments might be particularly important for you to modify?

Things to Do

  • Familiarize yourself with the learning outcomes for your program and for your course.
  • Talk to your academic director about where this course fits within the context of other courses in the program.
  • Focus on a major assignment in your course and try to assign a location or locations where that learning activity might be found on Bloom’s Taxonomy.


Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: from pedagogy to andragogy. Wilton, CT: Association Press.

Knowles, M. S. (1984). Andragogy in Action: Applying modern principles of adult education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Rogers, Carl R., & Freiberg, H. (1994). Freedom to Learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Rogers, C. (1983). Freedom to Learn for the 80s. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

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