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Backward Design Step 2: Writing Course Learning Outcomes

Writing good course learning outcomes

writing learning outcomes

The next step of blended course design is identifying your course learning outcomes (CLO). Course learning outcomes are the results a student can expect from the course. They state what learners should be able to do, know, and value at the end of your course. Articulated course learning outcomes serve as a guide to us as we (re)design a course. At UW‑Madison, course learning outcomes should align with two campus initiatives: program outcomes and the Wisconsin Experience.

Program Outcomes

As stated in the campus document Institutional Plan for Assessing Student Learning, course and program learning outcomes are required for all courses and programs. View program outcomes for each UW‑Madison undergraduate and graduate academic program in The Guide. Academic program outcomes should:

  • Describe what students are expected to know or be able to do upon completion of a program,
  • Be observable and measurable in some way,
  • Contribute to the Wisconsin Experience whenever possible and
  • Be assessed and reviewed by the faculty regularly.


You may teach in a school, college, or department guided by accreditation bodies identifying competencies that courses should support. If this is the case, identify the competencies supported by the course. This should guide the design of course learning outcomes and the development of activities. Check with your program coordinator for guidance on competencies.

Course Outcomes

An essential element of a successful course design is how well and clearly course learning outcomes have been written. Students should be able to read course outcomes and understand exactly what is expected of them and to what performance levels they will be held accountable. As you write or review your course outcomes, consider the following guidelines. Course outcomes should:

  • State what students are expected to know or be able to do upon completion of a specific course;
  • State clearly and relate specifically to the topics, assignments, exams, and assessments in the course;
  • Be observable and measurable in some way and
  • Contribute or map to program‑level learning outcomes.

Development of Course Learning Outcomes

The following are resources you can use to guide the development of course learning outcomes. 

The Wisconsin Experience

The Wisconsin Experience is UW‑Madison's vision for the total undergraduate student experience, which combines learning in and out of the classroom. Tied to the Wisconsin Idea and steeped in our long‑standing institutional values — the commitment to the truth, shared participation in decision‑making, and service to local and global communities — the Wisconsin Experience describes how students develop and integrate these core values across their educational experience.

Wisconsin Experience Values
Wisconsin Experience

Empathy and Humility

  • Develop and demonstrate a cultural understanding of self and others.
  • Engage locally, nationally, and globally respectfully and civilly.
  • Appreciate and celebrate one another’s abilities, views, and accomplishments.

Intellectual Confidence

  • Develop competence, depth, and expertise in a field of study.
  • Integrate ideas and synthesize knowledge across multiple contexts.
  • Exercise critical thinking and effective communication.

Purposeful Action

  • Apply knowledge and skills to solve problems.
  • Engage in public service, partner with others, and contribute to the community.
  • Lead for positive change.

Relentless Curiosity

  • Actively learn with expert instructors and peers.
  • Engage in creative inquiry, scholarship, and research.
  • Develop resilience and foster courage in life and learning.

Significant Learning

Fink believes that significant learning requires some lasting change that is important to the learner. The following taxonomy provides types of substantial changes that can be helpful in developing course learning outcomes.

  • Foundational Knowledge — “At the base of…learning is the need for students to know something. Knowing, as used here, refers to students’ ability to understand and remember specific information and ideas.”
  • Application — “Besides picking up facts and ideas, students often learn to engage in some new kind of action, which may be intellectual, physical, or social. Learning to engage in various kinds of thinking (critical, creative, practical) is an important form of application learning. Still, this category of significant learning also includes developing certain skills (such as communicating or playing the piano) or learning how to manage complex projects.”
  • Integration — “When students can see and understand the connections between different things, an important kind of learning has occurred. Sometimes they make connections between specific ideas, between various learning experiences…or between different realms of life.”
  • Human Dimension — “When students learn something important about themselves or others, they can function and interact more effectively. They discover the personal and social implications of what they have learned. What they learn or how they learn sometimes gives students a new understanding of themselves…a new vision of what they want to become…or greater confidence that they can do something important to them. At other times, they better understand others: how and why others act the way they do or how the learner can interact more effectively with others.”
  • Caring — “Sometimes a learning experience changes the degree to which students care about something. This may be reflected in new feelings, interests, or values. These changes mean students now care about something more than they did before or differently.”
  • Learning How to Learn — “In their studies, students can also learn something about the learning process. They may be learning how to be a better student, engage in a particular kind of inquiry, or become a self‑directed learner. All these constitute important forms of learning how to learn” (Fink 34‑36).

Verbs for Course Learning Outcomes
Level Verbs
APPLICATION Analyze, Assess, Calculate, Create, Critique, Do, Judge, Manage, Solve
INTEGRATION Connect, Relate, Compare
HUMAN CONNECTION Come to see themselves as, Decide to become, Understand others by
CARING Be more interested in, Get excited about, Value
LEARNING HOW TO LEARN Construct knowledge about, Frame questions, Read and study effectively

Examples of Course Learning Outcomes
Level Example
FOUNDATIONAL KNOWLEDGE Have a mental map of the world and locate major places correctly.
APPLICATION View regional problems from a geographic perspective.
INTEGRATION Identify the interactions between geography and other realms of knowledge, such as history, politics, economics, and social structure.
HUMAN CONNECTION Intelligently discuss world events and their geographic impact with others.
CARING Cultivate an interest in parts of the world and continue to learn about them.
LEARNING HOW TO LEARN Acquaint yourself with popular geography journals.

Identify Outcomes Worksheet

Keywordscourse learning outcomes, student learning outcomes, backward design, learning outcomes, CLO, Wisconsin experience, measurableDoc ID105495
OwnerCID F.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-09-01 13:09:57Updated2024-04-15 08:52:31
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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