Breaking Down Curricular Learning Goals into Learning Outcomes

Continuing down the cascade of your curriculum, one becomes more specific in the learning objectives one hopes residents will achieve. In this way, the cascade functions as nested structure includes successively more specific statements as one moves towards the level of practice.

One’s educational priority is the broadest statement of learning one hopes students will achieve. It is typically divided in 3-5 learning goals, and these learning goals are in turn divided into 4-6 learning outcomes. It is at this level, the level of learning outcomes, that one begins to see the specificity in language that allows for more discrete measurement to occur. The only level beyond this stage is strategy-level outcomes. This final level is highly measurable and occurs during a planned educational activity or strategy.

Cascading Curriculum

Developing learning outcomes from your learning goals requires you to think of all of the major components that may make up that learning goal. For example, one may have a learning goal related to health and wellness. It may read as follows:

Learning Goal: Residents will be able to make informed choices about their personal health and wellness habits that allow them to achieve their goals.

Examining this goal, one can already begin to see some subtopics that are present that provide clues as to what some outcomes may be. For one, students will need to set “goals.” An outcome that deals with goal setting, and all the knowledge required to set reasonable and attainable goals may be one of your first outcomes. A second theme present is “making informed choices.” This theme may actually entail a number of different learning outcomes. If one is to make informed choices, they’ll need to know facts about their various potential choices. This could include aspects of nutrition, exercise, and sexual and mental health.

Given these clues, one may wish to construct outcomes such as the following:

Students will be able to…

  • Set health and wellness goals that are reasonable, achievable, and sustainable.
  • Understand the impact of nutrition on their body and how to make food choices.
  • Articulate the range of exercise options available to them, how to engage in these options, and the impacts on their overall health.
  • Navigate sexual situations and decision making with an understanding of one’s own agency and the consequences of one’s actions.
  • Describe their own state of mental health and identify supports and strategies for working through adversity.
  • Understand the effects and consequences of alcohol on the body and mind and make decisions about consumption habits.

With these outcomes, one can begin to see the level of specificity that allows the outcomes to be assessed in a way that the larger learning goal categories could not be. These outcomes are also specific enough to allow for the creation of rubrics, which in turn, allows for the sequencing of educational activities and the development of facilitation guides for educational strategies that hope to achieve them.

One important aspect of writing these outcomes (and any outcomes in a curriculum) is that they are constructed such that it allows the students to contextualize the outcomes to their own opinions, desires, and circumstances. The outcomes provide students with knowledge, but do not prescribe a particular opinion or action per se. This particularly comes into play with political beliefs. Educators’ role is not to make students take one political stance or another. It is within the educator’s role, however, to challenges students’ assumptions, present them with information, and help facilitate decision making and informed opinions. Sometimes this is a delicate balance.

We may also have some “action outcomes” we desire for students, that although might not be explicitly stated in a learning outcome, are nevertheless important underlying measures. For example, a college or university may have a stated goal of increasing study abroad participation. We can construct learning outcomes that provide students will all of the information they need to make informed decisions about study abroad. Although we cannot make students study abroad, and furthermore it may not be the right choice for some of them, we can use our educational roles to promote and increase the likelihood a student may study abroad. In this case, there is an action outcome attached to a  learning outcomes. Study abroad statistics can then be a useful measure for success, but with the caveat that one may not easily be able to prove causation. This is an example of how one’s archeological dig process (uncovering institutional goals) can influence the development of the curriculum.

Key Questions

  • Are your learning outcomes specific enough? Or too specific?
  • How can you be reasonable with the scope of learning outcomes you decide upon?
  • Might your learning outcome fit better under a different goal area?
  • Are there any action oriented outcomes that you should keep in mind?


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