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Course Goals & Learning Outcomes

Course Goals and Learning Outcomes

What will students learn in your course?
A blended syllabus describes instruction in terms of student learning outcomes. The amount time a student spends in class with the instructor and TAs is not necessarily a reliable measure of student learning.  So how do you describe, measure and express student learning outcomes?

To begin to think about this, ask youself: "How will my students be transformed after completing my course?" How will students's intellectual capacities and particular (disciplinary) skills develop?

A clear syllabus will have a course outline (or description) that describes content and locates this course within the over-arching intellectual field, nationally and internationally.  Some syllabi include “big picture” course goals that typically refer to the content to be delivered, and key concepts.   Broad course goals will also describe how the course fits into the local departmental program and context.

Typcially you follow the broad course goal statement/s with a succinct statement of 4-5 precise student learning outcomes.  [insert samples]

Writing Intended Learning Outcomes:  The SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Tang, 2003)
John Biggs’ SOLO Taxonomy* is an updated version Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956), and Anderson and Krathwohl’s (2001) revised Taxonomy.  For a comprehensive overview of earlier versions of the taxonomies, see: The Digital Taxonomy.

Unlike earlier taxonomies, Bigg’s SOLO Taxonomy was developed specifically to support syllabus design for college and university courses.   Essentially it describes student learning as a series of stages of increasing conceptual and intellectual sophistication.

* SOLO = “Structure of Observed Learning Outcome”.

Diagram 1: The SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Tang, 2003)

Diagram 1: Solo Taxonomy

The verbs that are associated with each Stages 2 – 5 in the Taxonomy are intended to help you write the course student learning outcomes.

The stages:
1. Pre-structural: here students are simply acquiring bits of unconnected information, which have no organization and make no sense.  No understanding demonstrated and approach involves acquiring disconnected bits of information. The student misses the point.
2. Unistructural: simple and obvious connections are made, but their significance is not grasped.  The student shows concrete, reductive understanding of the topic. Simple and obvious connections are made but broader significance is not understood.
Verbs: define, identify, memorize, do simple procedure
3. Multistructural: a number of connections may be made, but the meta-connections between them are missed, as is their significance for the whole.  The student can understand several components but the understanding of each remains discreet. A number of connections are made but the significance of the whole is not determined. Ideas and concepts around an issue are disorganized and aren't related together.
Verbs: enumerate, classify, describe, list, combine, do algorithms

4. Relational: the student is now able to appreciate the significance of the parts in relation to the whole.  The student can indicate connection between facts and theory, action and purpose. The student shows understanding of several components which are integrated conceptually showing understanding of how the parts contribute to the whole. The student can apply the concept to familiar problems or work situations. 
Verbs: compare/contrast, explain causes, sequence, integrate, analyze, relate, apply, explain part/whole, make an analogy, formulate questions
5 Extended abstract: the student is making connections not only within the given subject area, but also beyond it, and is able to generalize and transfer the principles and ideas underlying the specific instance. The student conceptualizes at a level extending beyond what has been dealt with in the actual teaching. Understanding is transferable and generalizable to different areas. 
Verbs: theorize, generalize, predict, create, imagine, hypothesize, reflect, generate, evaluate

Once you have your Student Learning Outcomes in place for your course syllabus, it follows that your instructional and grading and assessment practices will “align” constructively with those outcomes.

Constructive Alignment

Alignment is about getting students to take responsibility for their own learning, and establishing trust between student and teacher. If students construct their own learning and this takes place inside the students' brains, where teachers cannot reach, then the real learning can only be managed by the students. All teachers can do is to create an environment which is encouraging and supportive of student’ learning. (Biggs & Tang, 2003).

According to the theory of “constructive alignment”, students will engage in “deep learning” when learning outcomes, instruction and assessment are aligned in a syllabus.

Diagram 2: Constructive Alignment in Syllabus Design

Diagram 2: Constructive Alignment in Syllabus Design

If your assessment schedule and weightings emphasize rote learning and memorization, identifying and defining then students will be demonstrating what is agued to be lower order “surface learning”.   Of course in order to operate at a “deep”  Extended Abstract level, student will still need to utilize rote learning and memorization, identifying and defining! However the purpose behind the SOLO Taxonomy is to encourage the design of learning processes and assessment that will move student beyond surface approaches to the demonstration of deeper intellectual engagement with the concepts and knowledge of your course.

Want to discuss this further? Instructional Developments’ Consultants, Dr Kim DeBacco and Dr Lisa Berry are also available to discuss your syllabus design, course goals and student learning outcomes.

Anderson, L.W., and D. Krathwohl (Eds.) (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: a Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Longman, New York.
Biggs, J. (1995). Assessing for learning: Some dimensions underlying new approaches to educational assessment. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 41(1), 1-17.

Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. Buckingham, UK: Society for Research in Higher Education/Open University Press.
Biggs, J.B., and Collis, K.F. (1982). Evaluating the Quality of Learning  - the SOLO Taxonomy. New York: Academic Press. xii + 245 pp.

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