Step 1: Learning Outcomes

A good course design will ensure our students are transformed in some way. Coming up with the big ideas (or themes) for your course is the first step in designing your course. To think of the overarching ideas takes a lot of thought, and brainstorming with colleagues often helps. 

The big ideas shape the way students think about a subject and develop skills and values related to the discipline. From these big ideas emerges student understandings, which bridge the abstract to the concrete learning outcomes that describe how students will make use of the course content. We want them to be able to do something with the knowledge they are learning in our courses. The relationship among big ideas, student understandings, and learning outcomes is shown here.


Big Ideas and Essential Questions.pdf

Big Ideas

Big ideas are the concepts, themes, or processes at the heart of a subject. For example, a big idea in economics is, “Thinking like a free-market economist.”

Big ideas can sometimes take the form of a question: “How does an economist think about the free-market?”

Student Understandings

Student understandings are the knowledge, skills, or attitudes that are associated with learning the "big idea" and may not always be visible or measurable.  

These questions can help you identify the student understandings related to each big idea:

  • What knowledge and concepts are essential for understanding the big idea?
  • What skills and ways of thinking will students need to develop?
  • Which attitudes and values will help students appreciate how the big idea fits within the subject?

Understandings usually follow the format: 

  "At the end of the course, students should understand that ___________."

  "At the end of the course, students should understand how to___________."

  "At the end of the course, students should understand the value of___________."

For example, "Students should understand that in a free-market economy, price is a function of demand versus supply."                                                         

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes are statements that provide measurable evidence of the understanding you want students to have. Learning outcomes give you evidence to see the quality of students' knowledge, skills, and attitudes they have learned in your course, and can reflect different levels of thinking or mastery. Some may be geared at getting students to show they comprehend a concept, and others at getting them to create something new from that knowledge.

Outcomes usually follow the format: “At the end of the course, students will be able to insert verb here + insert knowledge, skills, or attitudes the student is expected to develop here.”

For example, “At the end of the course, students will be able to summarize the key forces affecting the rise of China as an economic power in the global market.”

The verb used in learning outcomes should not be "understand" as this is not descriptive of the type or level of understanding. Some learning outcomes are geared toward knowledge acquisiton and comprehension, some toward analyzing and evaluating what has already been created, and some toward synthesizing and creating the new and different. Here is a list of verbs to use for different levels of thinking.

The big ideas and student understandings can be arranged into a course map. See examples from a Biology and Statistics course.

Contact us for a consultation about course design.

NEXT: Step 2: Design how students demonstrate their learning