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Creating Student Learning Outcomes

What are student learning outcomes?

A learning outcome is a statement that indicates what students should represent, demonstrate, or produce as a result of what they learn (taken from Peggy Maki). Some examples of the goals and general rules for creating student learning outcomes appear in the following list.

  • Systematic, structured look at what students are learning in library instruction
  • Moving from "What am I going to teach today?" to "What do I want students to learn today?"
  • Not the same as evaluating teaching; instead focusing on student learning
  • Can be created for a one-shot library instruction session, a library instruction program for a particular course (e.g. Freshman Writing), or the entire library instruction program at a library.


Characteristics of good learning outcomes

Good student learning outcomes:

  • Focus on what students will learn/know/be able to do (such as identify a relevant database in Research Port);
  • Describe actions or behaviors (e.g. searching the catalog or retrieving the full text of an article);
  • Are results-oriented and focus on something the student could demonstrate;
  • Are observable and measurable, something you could see or count like the number of articles in a student's bibliography that were retrieved using a library database;
  • Include a time frame (e.g. what students will know/be able to do at the end of a library instruction session or the semester).

ACRL standards and learning outcomes

The new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy outlines the following broad standards for students:

  • Characterize scholarship as a conversation with sustained discourse within a community of scholars or thinkers, with new insights and discoveries occurring over time as a result of competing perspectives and interpretations.
  • Approach research as an iterative process that depends upon asking increasingly complex questions whose answers develop new questions or lines of inquiry.
  • Illustrate the notion that underlying questions about the value of information and its potential use are more significant than the physical packaging of the information.
  • Explain how authority is constructed and contextual.
  • Search for information effectively and in a strategic manner that requires refinement and adjusting.

While these new standards are more difficult to measure, we can still create more specific learning outcomes based on them. At the end of the (semester, session...) students will be able to:

  1. Formulate questions for research based on gaps in information or data available and shape them based on currency, scope and disciplinary focus 
  2. Articulate the purpose and distinguishing characteristics of various formats. Identify which formats best meet particular information needs 
  3. Determine what authoritative information means for a particular need. Identify markers of authority across resources 
  4. Analyze and reconcile varied and sometimes conflicting perspectives
  5. Construct a search based on variants of their search question -- from using basic (Boolean and truncation) to creating sophisticated search strategies 
  6. Effectively utilize the core functionality features of any research tool
  7. Identify and search in several different resources in order to find the best results 
  8. Reevaluate needs and next steps throughout the research process
  9. Communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of formats 
  10. Advocate and practice responsible use of information as part of original creation or when incorporating the work of others

The next step would be to determine how these outcomes would be measured and what level of achievement or competency signals that the student has mastered these outcomes and to what degree. Here is a sample assessment that would require a rubric:

Ask students to choose a topic, develop key terms to search with, and use two different search engines to locate information on their topic. Have them compare the results in terms of quantity, types of sources (e.g., government, educational, scholarly,commercial), order/sequence of results, and relevance.

A sample benchmark might be that 75% of students will able to identify relevant results based on two out of four criteria learned to determine relevance. 

Levels of learning: Bloom's taxonomy

Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (published in 1956 and revised in 2001) gives you a way to express learning outcomes in a way that reflects cognitive (student thinking) levels.

There are six levels (lowest to highest cognitive skills):

  • Knowledge/remembering
  • Comprehension/understanding
  • Application/applying
  • Analysis/analyzing
  • Evaluation/evaluating
  • Synthesis/creating

Bloom's Taxonomy from Orey, M.(Ed.).(2001). Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology.

Suggested formula for library instruction outcomes

A well-designed learning outcome has the following components:

  1. Time frame
  2. Student focus
  3. Action verb
  4. Product/process/outcome

Here is an example of learning outcomes using the formula:

  • Time frame: "At the end of the semester...
  • Student focus: ...students will be able to...
  • Action verb: ...differentiate...
  • Product/process: ...peer-reviewed articles from popular articles."

Verbs for library instruction outcomes

Bloom's taxonomy (see above) is helpful for identifying useful verbs to describe student learning. Examples of learning outcomes verbs for library instruction include:

  • Knowledge/Remembering: define, list, recognize
  • Comprehension/Understanding:characterize, describe, explain, identify, locate, recognize, sort
  • Application/Applying: choose, demonstrate, implement, perform
  • Analysis/Analyzing: analyze, categorize, compare, differentiate
  • Evaluation/Evaluating: assess, critique, evaluate, rank, rate
  • Synthesis/Creating: construct, design, formulate, organize, synthesize

There are some verbs to avoid when writing learning outcomes. These verbs are too vague and often not observable or measurable. For example, how would you measure whether someone has "become familiar with" a particular tool? Use a more specific verb. If you want students to "understand" something, think more closely about what you want them to be able to do or produce as a result of their "understanding."

Verbs to avoid:

  • Understand
  • Appreciate
  • Know about
  • Become familiar with
  • Learn about
  • Become aware of 

Checklist for creating learning outcomes

To check whether your learning outcomes are well-crafted, you can use this checklist. Ask: Does my learning outcome...

  • Include a time frame (e.g by the end of the library instruction session)?
  • Focus on students (e.g. students will be able to...)?
  • Use action verbs (e.g. describe, identify, differentiate)?
  • Name a product or process (e.g. search WorldCat, create a citation in APA format)?
  • Let me observe or measure the result (e.g. I have a way to determine correct responses)?
  • Suggest a way to measure/suggest a method (e.g. I can easily see a way to tell whether students have learned this skill)?
  • Tell me something I really want to know about student learning (e.g. something that will help me improve student learning the next time I teach)?