Communicating learning outcomes to students

Learning outcomes

Learning outcomes and success criteria in a primary school class

I’ve been thinking about how to communicate learning outcomes / objectives / aims clearly with my students. There’s a lot of literature to support the benefits of making learning outcomes explicit in different educational contexts. (For example, “teacher clarity” is one of the top 10 influences Hattie identifies in his mammoth Visible Learning meta-study.) However, the old “at the end of this lesson/course, students will be able to do X” tends to be so tied up in unfamiliar meta-language that it’s lost on the students – especially language learners.

So, today in class I tried a new approach which seemed to work fairly well, and I’ve outlined the steps below. If you have any suggestions for making this better, please leave comments. I was working with an EAP class who are undertaking a university direct entry program. This was the first day of their new term. (Maybe it would be better to be talking about student-generated learning outcomes, but this isn’t really an option for me in this context where the coursework is fairly tightly prescribed and there’s a high-stakes exam at the end of the course.)


1. Discuss these questions in groups:

  • What are learning outcomes?

  • Is it important to understand the learning outcomes of a course?

  • What do you think are the learning outcomes of this course?

(I found that most students felt understanding learning outcomes was important, but were fairly vague on what would be the outcomes of our course.)

2. Place the learning outcomes around the walls of the classroom (I had seven outcomes, so a couple of each wall). Students walk around the room in pairs, moving from outcome to outcome and discussing these questions together:

  • What does this learning outcome mean?

  • To what extent have you already achieved this outcome?

  • What do you need to do in class to achieve this outcome?

  • What independent study do you need to do to achieve this outcome?

3. Feedback with class.

I found out pretty quickly that even though I’d modified the language in the learning outcomes to make it a bit more student-friendly, some students still didn’t understand them. For example, one of the outcomes was to “comprehend spoken language,” and a number of students were confused whether this was focussing on speaking or listening. Because students were mingling I was able to help with clarifying as they went, but I realised that I needed to simplify a number of the outcomes further to make them intelligible.

Toward the end of the exercise one student described what he understood from the activity. He said something along the lines of, “so this course is kind of like a puzzle, and you need to get all the pieces (reading, listening, presentations etc.) to fit together and then you kind of have a complete idea.” I thought that was a pretty great insight and asked him to share it with the rest of the class.


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