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Goal vs outcome – What’s the difference?

These terms are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Some describe goals as big-picture, longer-term, and achievable but not necessarily easy to measure (“students will understand the process of photosynthesis”). Outcomes are, by contrast, written in a way that is easy to measure (“students can compare and contrast key differences between two texts”). Learning outcomes are typically the most important things the students should be able to do by the end of the course (or end of the week/unit if using weekly learning outcomes). This course mapping guide from UCSD provides more detailed definitions (

A checklist to confirm if your learning outcomes are effective.

Dr. Stephanie Chasteen and others from University of Colorado Boulder provide their definitions of learning goals and outcomes. They go on to discuss the differences between learning outcomes and points on a syllabus. To view the full module with additional information about backwards design and writing learning outcomes, click here.

Applying Design Justice to Your Course Learning Goals and Outcomes

Design Justice is a framework that provides 10 principles  to center the voice of those normally marginalized in design. In the context of teaching and learning, we can apply design justice to our course planning in a few ways:

  • Consider inviting the voices of students, colleagues, community organizations/clinics, or other organizations or individuals that are connected to our discipline and course topic into the process of identifying goals for our course.  What ideas and values do they feel should be prioritized as goals for the course?
  • Consider adding course goals that examine and analyze racism and justice issues within the discipline – for example, identifying and elevating voices of scientists whose work was not spotlighted in the field due to their marginalized status. Whose voices are traditionally centered in past iterations of the course and how might you de-center those voices?
  • Reflect on how what you teach in the course interfaces with the local and/or global community. How will the relevance and connections be made clear to students? Are their community groups or individual leaders that could be engaged with the students in some way?
  • Are there indigenous practices or knowledge related to this topic that can be elevated and incorporated into the learning? 

These are just a few ideas to reflect on when thinking about your course goals and outcomes.

See also: Advancing Inclusion and Anti-Racism in the College Classroom: A Rubric and Resource Guide for Instructors

Where to start: look at the big picture first – why would your students need or want to take your course?

Where does your course fall in the curriculum of your department? Are there key skills or knowledge that students must learn in order to be prepared for the next course? If you are unsure of the answer to these questions, consulting with other faculty that teach the next course in the series or your department chair may be a good place to start.

Use Bloom’s and/or Fink’s Taxonomy to help you Phrase Course Outcomes 

Bloom’s taxonomy is a framework that provides a language and method for developing learning outcomes that vary across different levels of cognitive development.  Skills like simple recall are called “lower order” cognitive skills and more complex skills like analysis and making predictions are “higher order”.  The following resource on Bloom’s Taxonomy can help you craft clear learning outcomes across the spectrum as well as evaluate any current learning outcomes you have already developed. This framework can also be used to help you evaluate the type of questions you create for an exam or other assignment.

Higher Education consultant Dee Fink suggests a framework that includes additional humanistic learning outcomes. In his model, these latter outcomes are what make learning experiences “significant”, meaning that the learning will have a greater impact and persist longer because it includes an element of personalization and application to one’s own life.

Resource: Revised Bloom’s Handout from Iowa State University


Use Fink’s model or a Course Mapping Guide to Help Align Course Outcomes With Goals, Activities and Assessments 

This guide for course design from Dee Fink will walk you through a process for developing learning outcomes that address different levels of cognitive thinking.

This Course Mapping Guide from UCSD is another way to go through the process step-by-step, including a Course Map Template in Word.


Fink, L. Dee “A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning”: This workbook style guide will walk you through the different elements of backwards course design including writing learning outcomes.

A Model of Learning Objectives based on A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: This resource on Bloom’s taxonomy provides language and framework for developing learning outcomes across varying levels of cognitive development – from “lower order” to “higher order”.

“A Primer on Writing Effective Learning-Centered Course Goals” – by Bob Noyd, Air Force Academy: When the Air Force Academy decided to move all courses toward being more learning-centered, they realized their faculty would need to write good learning goals for their courses.  Bob Noyd put this document together to help them do that.  Note:  This also contains a list of verbs associated with each of the 6 kinds of learning in Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, on p. 4.

Examples from the Life Sciences Core:

Thank you to Professor Karen Lyons for sharing these examples from her course, MCDB 138: Developmental Biology.

Page 9 of this Mathematical Association of America document has a table of Mathematical Knowledge-Expertise levels that may feel like a better fit for math courses.

UCLA Program Outcomes by Department: Click here to search learning outcomes published on the UCLA Registrar’s Office website.

Review the learning outcomes for undergraduate majors here.