The Art of Creating Course Outcomes

Course learning outcomes (CLOs) are the advertised skills and/or knowledge that students look to in deciding to enrol in a course. ‘When I complete this course, I will be able to do a, b, c and d’.

As such, in terms of the integrity of the program they sit in, it is quite important that they are accurate. An employer, despite a student completing all assessments at a distinctive level, would be seriously disappointed if the graduate couldn’t actually do the things that were promised.

But whilst they are compulsory additions to course outlines, the skill of writing robust yet accurate outcomes is mostly left to chance. I am not saying that course coordinators are not well-meaning or that they don’t try their best, it’s just that there is little to no training of this highly necessary skill available to them – whether that be physical resources offered by their institution, or enough time for them to dedicate to the development.

As such, in higher education, there appears to be a default approach to the creation of outcomes:

  • I have to teach this amount of content, and my outcomes will be derived from that.

Whilst this can work, there is hidden a large trap for inexperienced educators in this approach. Often, wanting to satisfy stakeholder demand for robust ‘higher order’ outcomes to be connected with the course, some simply apply Bloom taxonomy verbs to statements describing the skills that will be taught. ‘Students will apply this, and evaluate that.’ The issue with this is that in a course with a lot of content, unless there is a measured approach to designing the curriculum these outcomes will not be able to be achieved.

This is because achieving ‘higher order’ outcomes is an incremental process that takes practice and usually a great deal of time. It is not as simple as ‘Ok, now you know this, apply it to this new context.’

The application of knowledge is best achieved by building a schema of analogies, providing multiple examples of an idea with slight variations that increase in complexity. This facilitates the learner being able to readily identify key structural components of the analogies, which then leads to the capacity to be able to apply the knowledge to new contexts. But when courses are laden with content, usually this development process using analogies is foregone – there simply isn’t enough time to do both. The consequence then is that before students can deepen their understanding of content, the next idea is presented. In a context like this, it is not reasonable that the course would expect students to achieve higher order outcomes.

Few courses however, would be content with only having lower order outcomes. So, to satisfy the necessary constructive alignment between content and outcomes, the curriculum must be designed with sufficient space and time for students to move through the unavoidable (and not to be cheated) process of developing capacity to apply what they are being taught. This will mean either of two things:

  • a reduction in the amount of topics covered, or
  • the learning management system is utilised effectively.

I am yet to see both of these logical conclusions be taken seriously enough.

In the next post, I will outline a case for better utilisation of the LMS.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger


  1. Doing a degree is like climbing a staircase not running across a field. I have heard the following argument many times – an honours degree is at AQF8 therefore it all should be at the same level – no it shouldn’t! It is simple enough to map the 3 domains of learning and their respective verbs against the AQF to allow more selective and appropriate use of verbs for Learning Outcomes – I know as I have done this. The more systemic problem is this failure to develop progressively more complex courses that build throughout a degree. Students at 18 will only have studied to AQF3 or possibly AQF4 – how do they leap straight up to level 8 in their first year at university?


    1. Thanks Richard. Yes, I agree that program design should build capabilities towards the AQF standards. I’m not sure though how students would be beginning their university at the honours level?


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