A Brief History of Learning Outcomes (or is it learning objectives?)

Educational objectives, instructional objectives, behavioural objectives, teaching objectives, learning objectives, learning outcomes, subject-specific outcomes…no wonder there is so much confusion! Although some suggest that the terms learning objectives and learning outcomes are synonymous, when we look at the history of these terms, it’s clear that they are not.

Joanna Allan’s (1996) article, Learning Outcomes in Higher Education, outlines this history and helps us understand the important distinctions between objectives and outcomes and why the term outcome is commonly preferred in higher education settings. A brief summary of the key differences is provided below. The full article can be found in the Langara Library database or in the TCDC office (C210).

Allan, J. (1996). Learning outcomes in higher education. Studies in Higher
Education 21(1), 93-108, DOI: 10.1080/03075079612331381487

The work of American psychologist Robert Mager (1962) has had a strong influence on how the term objective has been understood and used in education. Mager (1962) defined instructional objectives as what a learner will be able to do after a learning experience that he/she could not do before. Essential to his model is 1) the use of specific, unambiguous words that describe observable student performance, 2) a description of the conditions under which this performance will take place, and 3) a description of the criterion, or how well a student must perform to be successful. This approach to learning involves breaking up complex tasks into discrete performances and measuring each one. Although this is useful in some educational contexts, this method of curriculum design has been regarded as too limited and prescriptive to adequately capture the complex analysis, synthesis and application of information required of students in higher education settings.

Elliot Eisner (1979), a professor of Art and Education at Stanford, encouraged a move away from the use of stringent criteria and conditions common in learning objectives. He instead used the term outcome to describe a statement of what a student will be able to do as a result of a particular learning experience. Although this sounds very similar to the definition of learning objective above, a crucial difference is the level of specificity. Learning outcomes are not narrowed to describe one discrete element, instead they are intentionally kept broad to acknowledge the fact that not all learning can be broken down into limited pre-determined behaviours. Eisner argued that educators “should not feel compelled to abandon educational aims that cannot be reduced to measurable forms of predictable behaviour” (Eisner, 1979, p. 98 as cited in Allan, 1996). Also, learning outcomes often do not specify the performance conditions under which the performance must take place. As Allan (1996) explains,

there is no assumption that the outcomes derive uniquely from either the teaching objectives or the course/module content. This is not to undermine or denigrate the role of the lecturer, but rather to emphasize the role of the student in accepting responsibility for his/her own learning and to acknowledge that learning might take place in a variety of settings (p.104).

Eisner’s used the term subject-specific outcomes to describe learning related to the content covered during the learning experience, but his concept of learning outcomes also goes beyond classroom instruction to include personalized learning outcomes such as critical thinking and communication skills. Allan (1996) explains that this type of learning is essential to higher education but may only be tangentially connected to subject-specific outcomes and therefore may not be captured by use of learning objectives. Also, a student’s achievement of this type of outcome is often influenced by how involved the learner has been in the learning experience, a consideration not reflected in learning objectives. Allan (1996) proposes the terms personal transferable outcomes and generic academic outcomes for this type of learning.

It is important to note that moving away from the strict, narrowly defined measures of performance common to learning objectives does not mean a move away from high standards in post-secondary education. Assessment still remains at the core of outcomes-based curricula design. Developing clear, measurable learning outcomes allows learners to focus on what they need to learn and accomplish in order to succeed and helps instructors choose the most appropriate instructional strategies and assessment tasks, while still recognizing and making space for the complexity of learning in higher education.