The Promise of Your Course

Many educators feel that a key to effective and efficient course design is to develop and understand the PROMISE of your course. Why should a student take this course? What will they “get out” of it? Will they gain a more critical or informed way of appreciating the world? A set of skills applicable to their future career? Mastery of a set of concepts that are foundational for more advanced learning?

Student on their computer
Students on their computer

Students appreciate knowing why they are being asked to learn something. According to Mary Clement’s recent article Three Steps to Better Course Evaluations, “I recommend making invisible expectations explicit. I regularly start class by saying, ‘We are learning this because …’ When students understand why and how the material is relevant to them, they find more motivation to study and end up rating the course more highly.”

If the promise of a course is not clear, it’s often more difficult to articulate learning outcomes that are based on student learning rather than content areas.

For many years, courses were designed based on content areas, by listing the topic areas to be “covered” and breaking that down by the number of class meetings. Today, learning is understood as a much more complex process, and much of the content that used to be available only in the college classroom is now widely available online for free. The classroom is no longer the place to dispense information, but rather the place to help students learn how to use, apply, and understand information.

Today, course design is instead achieved by focusing on student learning goals–what college instructors want their students to learn, to know, and to be able to do by the end of the course. Instructors are asked to focus their course design efforts on what the students are doing in class as much, if not more so, than on what the instructor is doing.

Writing Learning Outcomes

Once the promise of a course is understood and articulated, it is easier to talk about the student learning goals, which are typically written out in the form of learning outcomes.

The task of writing learning outcomes often causes confusion and frustration among faculty members. It can be difficult to articulate in just a few statements all the complex learning that we want to occur in our courses. It is easy to get caught up in the distinctions between terms such as objectives, goals, measurable learning outcomes, or terminal course objectives. However, the bottom line is that it is useful for both instructors and students when the general desired outcomes of a course are stated and shared. Here are some tips and resources about writing learning outcomes.

  • Start with the end in mind. What are the main goals of your course for students? What is it that students should be expected to do, or to know, or to apply, by the end of your course? What are those main concepts you want students to retain years after taking your course?
  • Ultimately, try to write the objectives from the student’s perspective and tie them in to the promise of your course. Rather than just focusing on the content areas, what do you want the students to be able to do, to understand, or to know, and why is it important that they do so?
  • Most courses outcomes consist of a mix of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Think about not only what knowledge students should gain, but what skills they will be developing (critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills, application skills, psychomotor skills, etc.) and what attitudes they might be changing.
  • Clear learning outcomes help you align your content, assignments, and grading practices and help you focus on the essential components of the course, rather than trying to fit everything in.
  • Connect your course outcomes with your programs’ outcomes, with your Graduate degree outcomes, or with the University of Denver Undergraduate Student Outcomes.

Learning Outcome Examples

(Adapted from Walvoord and Anderson, Effective Grading, 1998)

  • Western Civilization I…describe basic historical events and people, argue like a historian does by using historical data as evidence for a position
  • Economics…use economic theory to explain government policies and their effects
  • Physics…explain physical concepts in your own words
  • Speech Pathology…synthesize information from various sources to arrive at intervention tactics for the client
MATC 1200: Calculus for Business and Social Sciences

Generously shared by Deb Carney, Dept of Mathematics

Students should be able to:

  • Relate the concept of the limit to the definition of the derivative
  • Describe the concept of the derivative as an instantaneous rate of change
  • Apply the concepts of the limit and the derivative to solve calculus problems
  • Interpret real-world situations in terms of related calculus concepts
  • Use and apply mathematical models including logarithmic and exponential functions

Additional Resources

Many instructors find the resources below to be helpful when writing learning outcomes.

The main idea is that most courses should focus on more than just knowledge/remembering outcomes and strive to develop more complex thinking skills among students.

Learn More

Contact the OTL if you would like someone to review and assist you in writing course learning outcomes.