What’s the Purpose, Really, of Stating “Learning Outcomes”?

By Angela Zito

Angela Zito is a PhD Candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an active contributor to local and international Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) communities, and enjoys teaching composition, literature, and tutoring in the UW-Madison Writing Center.

Odds are, either you or your colleagues have felt dismissive or even suspicious of the new “Communication Learning Outcomes” you’re being asked to list on your course syllabi:

In courses satisfying the Communication requirement, students will:

Make effective use of information retrieved, organized, and synthesized from appropriate sources.

Present ideas and information clearly and logically to achieve a specific purpose.

Make effective use of communicative forms appropriate to a specific discipline, and adapted to the intended audience.

Use appropriate style and conventions associated with particular communicative forms, genres, or disciplines.

Your suspicion is understandable! Stating outcomes often feels like an obligation, as something you just need to do in order to appease some administrators across campus who are concerned about accreditation—especially when you had no say in what those learning outcomes are to begin with! It can really feel like a top-down system of accountability.

This—the feeling that stating and assessing student learning outcomes is part of a top-down system of accountability—is a legitimate concern. When the assessment movement really got under way in the 1980s and ‘90s, accountability was very much a driving force. State and federal legislatures wanted proof that higher education was delivering a product worth the increasing cost of a college degree, and that framing of educative value in capitalistic terms does not align well with the humanistic and democratic values through which many of us teaching composition frame our teaching philosophies.

Learning outcomes can feel like a top-down system of accountability. Image: Angela Zito

Many assessment professionals—themselves current or former English faculty—shared these concerns and worked to transform the guiding framework of assessment. They believe that assessment of student learning must be about learning, both students’ learning and our learning about how students learn. The motivating force for assessment, then, would need to be collaborative and academic justification (much like we expect in scholarly peer review) rather than top-down accountability.

As a researcher as well as an educator, I’ve become deeply interested in this increasingly academic approach to stating and assessing learning outcomes—especially with regard to general education courses like English 100. My dissertation tracks perceptions of assessment among faculty and TA instructors for Introductory Literature courses, and theorizes how those perceptions affect assignment design and instructional practice. Because Intro Lit courses also fulfill general education requirements (“Breadth” and sometimes “Ethnic Studies”), my research broaches questions that resonate with the challenges and pleasures of supporting student learning in English 100, as well. (Ask me about it sometime! I’m always eager to talk about my research.)

So, how does the new version of the Communication Learning Outcomes you’re expected to include in your English 100 syllabus arise from a system of academic justification rather than accountability? Last year, as an ASM Student Representative on the University General Education Committee (UGEC), I got a good look at the process, and I’d say it looks something like this:

In my research and experience, learning outcomes are actually much more recursive and collaborative Image: Angela Zito

Faculty representatives from across the College of Letters and Science regularly meet and discuss goals for student learning in collaboration with L&S and University administrators. From there, the collaboratively generated outcomes are shared University-wide. This is a recursive process, too, so as these conversations continue, and as new representatives serve on the committee and bring their instructional insight to the table, learning outcomes are updated to better reflect the mission of the University and the goals of the various departments teaching Gen Ed courses.

Like any process of drafting, implementation, and revision, generating learning outcomes is often messier than a diagram can capture. Similar to how a compelling thesis statement contains within it a largely invisible history of critical thinking, conversation, and reflection, the revised learning outcomes as they’re stated above are the product of an extended process that isn’t readily visible to us. For instance, the outcome that students will be able to “Present ideas and information clearly and logically to achieve a specific purpose” addresses a specific element of rhetorical awareness—purpose—that Comm A and B program directors (including the Director of English 100) might have helped the UGEC to identify and articulate. For this learning outcome to be adopted and disseminated, it must be justified through the scholarly and instructional expertise of the faculty most directly involved in supporting student learning in that area.

How Stating Outcomes Can Actually Support Student Learning

In the previous section, I tried to demonstrate how the motivating force for stating learning outcomes is one of justification more so than accountability. Here, I want to present a few ways in which learning outcomes can actually be used in your class to support student learning.

One way is to use institutional learning outcomes (e.g. the new Communication outcomes listed at the top of this post) to “backward design” course-level and unit-level outcomes for your individual class. This practice helps to scaffold—or, logically sequence—class activities, assignments, and assessments throughout your course so that they all build toward the specific kinds of learning you want to see your students achieve. I’ve tried to do this for the English 201 (Comm B) course I’m teaching this semester; here’s an excerpt from my course syllabus that illustrates my approach:

Like all Comm B courses, English 201 will help you learn to:
• make effective use of information retrieved, organized, and synthesized from appropriate sources.
• present ideas and information clearly and logically to achieve a specific purpose.
• make effective use of communicative forms appropriate to a specific discipline and adapted to the intended audience.
• use appropriate style and conventions associated with particular communicative forms, genres, or disciplines.

This particular section of English 201 will help you learn to:
• explain the interrelation of readers, writers, and texts in the production of meaning
• generate complex and plausible interpretations of texts by integrating multiple critical reading strategies
• justify the value of investigating multiple possible interpretations of the same text
• evaluate the plausibility of multiple interpretations of the same text
• reflect (in speech and writing) on your interpretive processes in different academic and social contexts
• collect, evaluate, and cull academic source material according to relevance, credibility, and currency
• imagine alternative ways of organizing ideas at the sentence, paragraph, and whole-text level

By repeatedly drawing students’ attention to these interconnected outcomes through the duration of a course, we can become more explicit about why as well as how we expect students to practice certain skills in their assignments and activities. Reiterating—and discussing—learning outcomes at strategic moments throughout the semester helps clarify for both you and your students the purpose and direction of the course.

Additionally, incorporating specific learning outcomes in assignments and class activities as well as your syllabus supports student learning by providing students with a systematic framework through which to organize the new knowledge they’re acquiring in your course. Follow this link to see an example of how I’ve tried to create such a systematic framework around an Annotated Bibliography assignment for my current composition class.

Providing students with a clear and systematic framework is important because we, as experts in our field, have developed complex organizational structures for the knowledge we’ve accumulated. For instance, we don’t just have the components of a text’s rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, context etc.) as a list in our memory but rather as a network of interconnections because we have acquired enough knowledge and experience to see how these components relate with and inform one another.

A light blue background show a network of a variety of circles that are interconnected through various lines
Experts in any given field have complex organizational structures for the knowledge they have acquired–more like networks than lists.

Our students have not yet developed these organizational structures—they’re novices in academic and professional writing. On any given class day, they might make some connections and not others, or try to string their newly acquired knowledge into a neat, linear progression toward a final written product. For example, English 100 students learning about genre might misconceive genre conventions as stable and specific to particular contexts (e.g. a resume is one page of relevant work experience you need to apply for a job), whereas English 100 instructors understand that genre conventions actually evolve and frequently vary across multiple contexts, purposes, and audiences (e.g. resumes can be two pages and include academic achievements when applying for specialized positions).

Thinking critically about the learning outcomes of a course invites us to take a big step back and disentangle our complex structures of knowledge so that we can strategically connect new knowledge to prior knowledge in a way that recursively builds connections and helps students organize that knowledge for more effective retrieval and application.



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Institution. Stylus, 2010.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Across the Curriculum Program, Locally Sourced: A Writing Across the Curriculum Sourcebook for Faculty. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019.

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development, 2005