Module 1: Create your quality online course blueprint
Backward design starts with defining the learning outcomes, which state what learners should be able to do to demonstrate their learning. Well-written outcomes avoid vague words like “understand” and “know” (which require interpretation) by spelling out for learners how you and your discipline measure understanding and knowing.
Learning outcomes should be
- phrased as actions (using verbs);
- clearly stated and measurable (since you will be assessing them);
- written from a learner perspective (address your learners directly);
- available at the course and module levels; and
- connected to overall program competencies.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful resource to reference as you craft your learning outcomes: It classifies instructional objectives into hierarchical categories across three domains (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor), ranging from the less to the more complex. In order for learners to achieve the higher-order skills, they first need to perform at the lower levels. This taxonomy can help guide your thinking about the types and depth of skills and knowledge you’d like your learners to demonstrate at the end of your course and the assessment types that would be appropriate to evaluate these.
What’s in a verb?
When crafting your learning outcomes, it’s important to use verbs that depict learners’ observable behaviour. This will help you design appropriate assessments. Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a handy list of measurable verbs for each skill level, which you can use as prompts or to guide your design thinking.
Click on the different skill levels for some basic guidance. To better view the actionable verbs, select the expand button on the top right of the image.
(Credit: Grantham, 2021; used under CC BY-SA 4.0 license) | Image Description (PDF)
Take a look at the learning outcomes in the chart below. This chart outlines examples of how to turn vague learning outcomes into measurable, more concrete learning outcomes that can be clearly assessed.
|Vague Learning Outcome||Measurable Outcome|
|Learn how to solve basic mechanical engineering problems.||Apply mathematical approaches to solve basic mechanical engineering problems.|
|Know the areas and function of the brain.||Identify the areas of the human brain and describe the function of each.|
|Understand the principles of essay writing.||Identify the principles of essay writing and apply them to your essay.|
|Be familiar with various psychological theories and their applications.||Describe the foundations of psychological theories covered in the course and their applications.|
|Solidify understanding of urban geography and how it helps us understand climate change.||Discuss foundational principles of urban geography and how they can be applied to help us understand climate change.|
As you consider the outcomes you want your learners to achieve at the end of your course, don’t limit your thinking strictly to content-related outcomes. Are there particular skills, values, ways of disciplinary thinking and/or problem-solving that would be appropriate for the course? For example, in a psychology course, rather than simply having learners memorize theory, are there ways in which they can apply the theory to a real-world context? Or could the skills of argument analysis, evaluating evidence, and critical reading be an explicit outcome that students gain in the course? As Gagné and Merrill (2000) explain,
. . . placing student learning outcomes in the context of real-world problems gives purpose and meaning to knowledge and skills. (p. 129)
If you’re interested in exploring ways to incorporate critical thinking outcomes into your course, take a look at the following resources:
“Going Below the Surface: Depth Structure and Transfer in Critical Thinking” by Helen Lee Bouygues from The Learning Scientists.
- Cross-disciplinary guides on “How to Teach Critical Thinking” from the Reboot Foundation.
For more information about how to write learning outcomes, check out the Learning Outcomes section of Module 1 Resources for Further Study.
An EDII perspective on learning outcomes
If you’re interested in exploring an EDII approach that attempts to move beyond a hierarchical “content knowledge and application” approach to learning outcomes, there is an additional model we can recommend. This model encompasses more of the “human dimensions” of learning, including the Taxonomy of Significant Learning (Fink, 2013) on top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and integrates the Haudenosaunee Four Directions Teaching represented in the Medicine Wheel visual to promote a more holistic approach to teaching and learning.
For more information, and examples, visit the Incorporating a Holistic Framework for Online Curriculum Development interactive tool. You’ll be able to export your initial ideas for creating new learning outcomes using this holistic framework.
Please note that your responses are private and are deleted when you refresh or navigate away from the interaction so ensure to click the Export tab at the bottom of the left-hand navigation before moving on.