More Than Mandates: How Course Outcomes Can Be Used to Create Unforgettable Learning Experiences

Cindy Blackwell, Ph.D.
Cindy Blackwell is an ACUE Academic Director and earned her ACUE Certificate in Effective College Instruction in 2017 at The University of Southern Mississippi.

Cindy BlackwellMy first impression with course outcomes is similar to that of many faculty.

I was a graduate student who was handed a syllabus complete with outcomes for the course I was assigned to teach. At that point, the outcomes on the syllabus meant little to me; I was just trying to get through the content and look like I knew what I was doing.

Over the years, as my understanding of teaching has evolved, so too has my appreciation for course outcomes. As Larry Spence wrote in The Case Against Teaching, his 2001 article for Change: The Magazine for Higher Learning, “we won’t meet the needs for more and better higher education until professors become designers of learning experiences and not teachers.”

In my role as a “designer of learning experiences,” I now see how course outcomes can be used to create unforgettable and purpose-driven learning experiences–for both me and students.

Understanding and establishing powerful course outcomes

Too often course outcomes are written to reflect what the faculty will do instead of what the student will learn.

Establishing powerful course outcomes begins by reframing these statements so that they are more learner-centered. They should also be measurable, specific, and designed in a way so that a range of learners can build from foundational skills to higher-order thinking.

Of course, for some disciplines, course outcomes are mandated by a program or accrediting organization. Sometimes faculty aren’t even allowed to revise or alter them. In these cases, it is even more important to  understand the spirit and purpose of each outcome, so that you can clearly communicate them to your students. If your outcomes have been written in “accreditation-speak”, then it’s your job to be able to translate them into clear, accessible, and student-centered language.

Understanding the purpose of the course outcomes is only the first step in the design process.


Aligning activities, assignments and assessments with course outcomes.

Course outcomes can be easily divorced from the course content. Course outcomes could be beautifully written, but they won’t be effective if they’ve been created without much or any thought to how they are connected to the course’s activities and assignments.

One way to determine alignment is by doing an analysis of the gaps and overlaps in the alignment of course outcomes and course content. We frequently find that some outcomes are heavily burdened while others are completely unencumbered from any course content. Ultimately, these ones serve no purpose.

This kind of analysis is an intensive process, but it will help you ensure that your course content – activities, assignments and assessments – are aligned to course outcomes.

Clearly communicating course outcomes.

A concern that faculty often raise when it comes to course outcomes is that students don’t pay much attention to them. Why should we be putting so much time and energy in this aspect of course design?

Part of the reason students may not care about course outcomes is because they don’t understand the connection to their own learning. If students do not care, it is because we aren’t effectively communicating how helpful course outcomes can be.

In fact, having well-designed course outcomes means you can demonstrate how each activity, assignment, and assessment fits into the overall purpose of your course and how the course fits into the student’s own goals for education and life.

Engaging students in course outcomes.

Course outcomes aren’t just something to go over at the beginning of the semester. It is important to continually highlight the outcomes and engage students throughout the course.

One simple way to do this is by making sure each section of your course references specific outcomes. When you begin a new topic, take a few moments to make the connection for students, taking the connection as far beyond your classroom as possible.

In Practice: Student-led Course Outcomes Discussions

One innovative way to engage students in course outcomes is to have students tell you their summative perspective of the outcomes.

As the last assignment of the semester, Dr. Pamela Greene at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi asks her graduate nursing students in her Health Policy and Cultural Diversity course to analyze the course outcomes and develop a discussion relating to outcomes that students felt they did not meet throughout the course.

Take, for example, this outcome in Dr. Greene’s course: “Integrate the cultural strengths of specific groups, subcultures, or communities into problem- solving strategies.”

If, as a student, I felt as though I did not meet or understand this outcome, I would research an element related to the topic. In the class discussion, I would share my insights using appropriate citations and references.

This does three wonderful things.

  1. It allows students to select and analyze their own learning gaps, giving them more control over their learning.
  2. It allows students to engage with their class peers in a research-based discussion that offers a broader perspective of the course outcomes than just that of the faculty.
  3. It offers excellent feedback for the faculty on where there might be gaps in the overall course design or in assignment and assessment alignment.

Without a doubt, this aspect of course design– the analysis and alignment of your course’s many parts–is no easy task, but the time you put into this process is more than worth the investment. Once in place, there are myriad ways course outcomes can benefit both you and students.

The First Step in Designing An Unforgettable Learning Experience

We often view course outcomes through the lens of being a university or accreditation requirement.

But I urge educators to view them through a student lends. Course outcomes are the first step in designing an unforgettable and purpose-driven learning experience for your students. Embracing them can offer you and your students a greater connection to your course.

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