How do you write a program-level learning outcome?


One of the most critical and challenging steps in curriculum development is developing a list of learning outcomes that bring life, coherence, meaning and intentionality to the collection of courses which make up a curriculum. Learning outcomes are broad, yet direct statements that describe the competences that students should possess (i.e. what students should know and be able to demonstrate) upon completion of a course or program (Harden, 2002; Kennedy et al., 2006).  They focus on broadly defined complex abilities that can be both demonstrated and observed (Harden, 2002). Learning outcomes may be presented separately to represent the cognitive, psychomotor and affective domains, but often cover a range of interacting knowledge, skills and attitudes that reflect the complexities inherent to the process of learning, and represent the essential, enduring and integrated learning that a graduate of a course or programme should possess (Harden, 2002; Soulsby, 2009).

Note: for further details and examples related to the domains of learning see Marzano and Kendall, 2007; Kennedy et al., 2006; Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001; Bloom et. al., 1956; 1964.

How DO you write a learning outcome?

Learning outcomes should state the specific knowledge, skills and attitudes that an ideal graduate of the program should demonstrate, and the depth of learning that is expected.   Preparing 8-12 well-written and representative program-level learning outcomes (Harden, 2002) is usually one of the most challenging, yet important tasks a curriculum committee can undertake.  It is very important to develop learning outcomes that align directly with program, college and university-level mission statements.  Collaboratively reflecting upon and discussing these mission statements is often a valuable first step when developing and/or revising your program’s learning outcomes.

Kennedy et al (2006, p.18) and Soulsby (2009) provide the following advice for preparing a LO:

  • The LO should complete a phrase describing what students should know and/or be able to do by the end of the program (e.g. “By the end of this program successful students will be able to…”).
  • The LO should start with an action verb, followed by a statement specifying the learning to be demonstrated, and finally a statement (or statements) to give it context and to identify a standard for acceptable performance.
  • The LO should be unambiguous. Terms such as know, understand, learn, and to be aware of should be avoided, and the specific level of achievement should be clearly identified.  Whereas undergraduates may be required to recognize, apply and analyze disciplinary knowledge, graduate students are required to demonstrate a deeper level of understanding, by evaluating and creating disciplinary knowledge.
  • The LO should be measurable, observable, and capable of being accessed.
  • The LO should be balanced. If the LO is too broad it will be difficult to assess, on the other hand if the list of learning outcomes is long and detailed, they are likely too specific and may limit flexibility and adaptability in the curriculum.
  • The LO should be concise and clearly stated.
  • The LO should be realistic given the time and resources available to both learners and instructors.
  • The LO should help to bring the curriculum to life, and to define and describe what makes the program unique and innovative


Anderson, L.W. and Brathwohl, D. 2001. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Longman, New York.

Bloom, B.S., Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W. And Drathwohl, D. 1956.  Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.   Volume 1: The Cognitive Domain. MacKay, New York.

Bloom, B.S., Masia, B.B. and Krathwohl, D.R.  1964. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Volume II: The affective domain. MacKay, New York.

Harden, R.M. 2002. Learning outcomes and instructional objectives: is there a difference? Medical Teacher 24(2):151-155.

Kennedy, D. Hyland, A., and Ryan, N. 2006. Writing and Using Learning Outcomes: a Practical Guide.  In the Bologna Handbook.  Accessed Online: Feb. 9, 2011.

Marzano, R.J. and Kendall, J.S. 2007. The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Corwin Press, CA.

Soulsby, E. (2009) How to write program objectives/outcomes. Accessed online at:, Feb. 9, 2011

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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