The Role of Learning Outcomes

The learning outcome concept is key to the shift in education from a paradigm concerned with providing instruction to a paradigm of producing learning (ACM 2017).


What are Learning Outcomes?

Learning outcomes are written statements of what a learner is expected to know and be able to demonstrate at the end of a learning unit (or cohesive set of units, course module, entire course, or full program). These can range in the level of learning from RECALL of knowledge to INTERPRETATION / APPLICATION of knowledge to USING knowledge for APPLIED PROBLEM SOLVING. Traditionally, these cognitive levels of learning are evaluated via formative or summative assessments.


"Knowledge designates a proficiency in core concepts and application of learning to new situations. This dimension usually gets most of the attention from teachers, when they design their syllabi; from departments, when they develop program curriculum; and from accreditation organizations, when they articulate accreditation criteria. When asked what an IT course is about or what the requirements of an IT program are, the most pervasive response has a list of topics or courses. Selecting, organizing, and communicating curricular content continue to be the easiest tasks in curriculum development" (ACM, 2017).


"Skills refer to capabilities and strategies that develop over time, with deliberate practice and through interactions with others and the world around us. Skills also require engagement in higher-order cognitive activities, meaning that “hands-on” practice of skills join with a “minds-on” engagement. The inextricable connection between knowledge and skills is evident in Michael Polanyi’s characterization of explicit versus tacit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge, or “know-that,” reflects core ideas and principles, and corresponds to the knowledge dimension in our definition. Tacit knowledge, or “know-how,” is a skillful action requiring sustained engagement and practice. Problem-based assignments, real-world projects, and laboratory activities with workplace relevance are examples of curriculum elements that focus on developing skills. Well-designed syllabi and accredited programs are mindful of skill development when they articulate student outcomes at course and program level (ACM, 2017).


"Dispositions encompass socio-emotional skills, behaviors, and attitudes that characterize the inclination to carry out tasks and the sensitivity to know when and how to engage in those tasks. To distinguish dispositions from knowledge and skills, we use Schussler’s view that a disposition “concerns not what abilities people have, but how people are disposed to use those abilities" (ACM, 2017).  

Disciplinary Outcomes in Relationship to T-Skills

To explore the tensions and opportunities between disciplinary outcomes and 21st Century skill development requires a closer look at the role that disciplinary outcomes play in relation to the development of 21st Century skills. Of importance are four aspects.

The Importance of Alignment

First, is the level of learning that the outcomes statement intends to reach as it tacitly implies an alignment between the level of learning that the outcome statement declares and the assessment that measures the achievement of that outcome. Without an alignment between the two, there is no way of gauging whether the outcome has been reached.

Higher-order Outcomes Foster T-Skills 

Second, it is important to consider to which extent the disciplinary goals already include 21st Century skills either directly stated or implied in the outcomes statement. Outcomes statements, while clearly focused on articulating their unique disciplinary goals, frequently foster additional cognitive, conative, and affective skills. Recognizing where the curriculum inherently fosters a particular 21st Century skill presents an educational opportunity to design an authentic learning task that deepens the disciplinary learning while also fostering that particular 21st Century skill.

Be Aware of Lower-level Outcomes

Third, it is important to recognize when outcomes statements hover on the lower level of the cognitive scale or when outcomes are purely disciplinary and void of fostering any 21st Century Skills. This is where the creative design of an authentic learning activity or assessment can elevate lower-level outcomes to higher levels of learning by asking learners to use and apply lower level knowledge in application, analysis, or evaluation which results in higher-level learning while additionally fostering 21st Century Skills.

Recognize that Outcomes are a Destination not the Journey

Fourth, and most importantly, it is to recognize that learning outcomes are merely statements about WHAT learners are intended to achieve; they are the end goals in sight. It is the task design that determines HOW the learners will achieve these goals wherein lies the opportunity to design meaningful learning opportunities that achieve the disciplinary goal but that additionally foster the important dispositions and skills learners require for the future.

The Evidence of Learning is in What the Learner Does



Sabin, M., Alrumaih, H., Impagliazzo, J., Lunt, B., Zhang, M., Byers, B., ... & Veer, G. (2017). Curriculum Guidelines for Baccalaureate Degree Programs in Information Technology. Technical Report. ACM, New York, NY, USA.