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The assessment process begins with having a clear and shared idea of what it is we are trying to measure. In many instances, this is the most difficult but most important step in the process. Defining intended outcomes are required whether you are assessing a program, a discipline, a department, or even an individual class. The appropriate assessment measures become apparent after the intended outcomes are clearly described. Some have said that well written outcomes are the engine that drives the assessment process. Keep in mind that there are many important outcomes that are difficult to describe, let alone measure. An important outcome should not be abandoned simply because we cannot think of an easy way to measure it.

Outcomes focus on results and are not simply “administrative activities.” Effective outcomes focus on the impact that our activities, goals and decisions will have on student learning and/or the support for this learning process. They are concise and clearly worded. Outcomes are limited in scope and do not “bundle” several outcomes together. They should focus on core functions or key responsibilities within the department.

Guiding General Principles for Writing Intended Outcomes

The first step in the assessment process is to establish outcomes. Again, this process can be adapted to all levels (e.g., program goals, discipline goals, department goals, course outcomes). Goals reflect the broad concepts and skills we want students to develop as a result of our program/discipline/department/course. Begin this step by asking yourself, “What are the major academic outcomes I want students to achieve in this program/discipline/course?” and write down your response.

Outcomes are different from broadly-stated goals in that outcomes transform goal generalizations into specific student performance and behaviors that demonstrate student learning and skill development. Outcomes describe specific learning behaviors that students should exhibit in the context of the program/discipline/course. Outcomes are the specific skills, values and attitudes students should exhibit that reflect the broader goals (e.g., for students in a freshman writing course, this might be “students are able to develop a cogent argument to support a position”). Note that often in the assessment literature, “objectives”and “outcomes” are used interchangeably.

According to the Center for Performance Assessment (, effective outcomes are SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Come up with an acronym of your own and you too can market it and become rich and famous!

According to the California State University, Outcomes Assessment Handbook (1999), effectives outcomes do the following:

  • Use action words that specify definite, observable behaviors (e.g., define, arrange, apply)
  • Indicate an appropriate level of attainment (e.g., from knowledge of specific facts to an ability to evaluate something)
  • Are assessable through one or more indicators (e.g., job shadowing, a summative reflection paper, employer survey or feedback)
  • Comprehensively and meaningfully define a goal
  • Are realistic and achievable
  • Use simple language

Bloom’s taxonomy (1964) is a well-known description of levels of educational outcomes. It may be useful to consider this taxonomy when defining your outcomes.

  • Level 1: Knowledge - to know specific facts, terms, concepts, principles, or theories
  • Level 2: Comprehension - to understand, interpret, compare and contrast, explain
  • Level 3: Application - to apply knowledge to new situations, to solve problems
  • Level 4: Analysis - to identify the organizational structure of something; to identify parts, relationships, and organizing principles
  • Level 5: Synthesis - to create something, to integrate ideas into a solution, to propose an action plan, to formulate a new classification scheme
  • Level 6: Evaluation - to judge the quality of something based on its adequacy, value, logic or use

When writing your outcomes, use concrete verbs such as "define," "argue," or "create" because they are more helpful for assessment than vague verbs such as "know," "understand," or passive verbs such as "be exposed to." In the table below are some action words frequently used in objectives for each level of attainment.

Cognitive Behavior
Action Verbs
define classify apply analyze arrange appraise
identify describe compute appraise assemble assess
indicate discuss construct calculate collect choose
know explain demonstrate categorize compose compare
label express dramatize compare construct contrast
list identify employ contrast create decide
memorize locate give examples criticize design estimate
name paraphrase illustrate debate formulate evaluate
recall recognize interpret determine manage grade
record report investigate diagram organize judge
relate restate operate differentiate perform measure
repeat review organize distinguish plan rate
select suggest practice examine prepare revise
underline summarize predict experiment produce score
  tell schedule inspect propose select
translate shop inventory set-up value
  sketch question    
translate relate
use solve
Sample Outcomes

The Internet is literally flooded with examples of outcomes (student learning as well as non-academic). A recent search for "biology outcomes" using the search engine yielded 2,760,000 possible links. Select a discipline or course of your choice and search for outcomes on the Internet. Below are some sample outcomes provided by Brigham Young University-Hawaii.

Academic Sampler
* International Business Management majors will work comfortably and effectively in diverse groups, such as may be found in international business settings.
* Students will demonstrate understanding of the essential points and most details in an academic reading passage.
* Graduating TESOL majors will apply their knowledge of second language teaching in providing acceptable instruction and feedback to ESL learners.
* Students will recognize and take into account cultural, gender, and ethnic views and explain their impact on an issue.
* Students will make evident their abilities in library research with historical sources.
* Students will demonstrate their competence in writing about the past.
* ICS graduates should be able to articulate and sustain their views through verbal and written discourse.

Academic Support Sampler
* Provide better student access to computer lab resources.
* Increase the reliability of LIS systems and services.
* Increase the number of submissions and scholars willing to adjudicate the journal Pacific Studies.
* A majority of students surveyed will express satisfaction with services provided by the Academic Advisors.
* Increase student participation in national surveys (NSSE).

Administrative Sampler
* Fill requests of our clients for information in a timely, accurate manner.
* Increase customers’ satisfaction with Bookstore merchandise.
* Increase customer satisfaction with Seasider menus.
* Patients under age two will receive excellent preventive care. (provide rubric)
* International students will understand the need to know the new stricter INS rules for tracking foreign students and timekeeping requirements for those foreign students.
* Increase the cleanliness of Physical Plant shops and other workspaces. (provide rubric)
* Increase usage of the Campus Distribution Center (CDC) website through an on-line shopping system to better serve the Physical Plant and campus departments’ needs.

Student Life Sampler
* Students, faculty and staff will be satisfied with how security responds to complaints and/or referrals.
* Increase the number of graduate placements in full-time employment and/or graduate school.
* International Students will be satisfied with the services provided by the International Student Office.
* Student officers and employees will demonstrate improvement in key leadership/management skills.
* Students will be more satisfied with their Student Activities involvement.

Behavioral Outcomes

Behavioral Outcomes. The following is an excerpt from RJ Kizlik's website "Writing Learning Objectives: A Guide to Effective Practice." The full version of this self-instructional guide to writing learning objectives (WLO) is available for a nominal fee of $14.95. The program is on a CD and runs in any Internet browser.


Behavioral objectives serve several instructional purposes, including the basis for lesson planning,   the bane of many of those learning to be teachers.  First and foremost, they clarify the intent of instruction for the teacher. By stating objectives in behavioral terms, the teacher exercises a type of professional discipline that will aid in focusing his attention upon that which is really the purpose of all instruction -- learning. Because learning cannot be seen directly, objectives provide a basis for making the best possible inferences about whether learning has occurred. By formulating clear objectives of instruction, the teacher stands a better chance of devising instructional strategies that will effectively lead his students to learn what he intends to have them learn.

But, the usefulness of behavioral objectives does not stop there. They also serve to clarify the purposes and intent of instruction for all who have an interest in the outcomes of instruction. Students, parents of students, principals, supervisors, school boards, college deans, and members of society at large all have some interest in instructional outcomes. Such constituents often complain that educators speak in a curious dialect known as pedagogese in response to inquiries for information, and may even claim that this is intended to deceive them.

Imagine, if you will, the plight of the parents of a third grade student who was given the homework assignment, "By tomorrow, know the continents." When he asked his parents for help they were understandably stupefied. What does "know the continents" mean?  Is it naming them? Is it ordering them from largest to smallest? Is it labeling them on an outline map? Is it naming the direction each lies from the United States?

Assuming that naming the continents was all that was required, which list of names should be used? Some lists include Europe and Asia as one continent. Some list Australia separately and some include it in a complex called Oceania. Judging from the test that the teacher gave, it turned out that what was wanted of the student was for him to list the names of the continents given in his social studies textbook. But at the beginning of his instruction he didn't know that, his parents didn't know it and maybe his teacher didn't even know it. The most dehumanizing occurrence, however, was that the student didn't know what was expected until he took the test. He knew then what was expected but it was too late. He had already failed and he was never given another chance.

Then there was a student who failed a social studies test on Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty . . ." speech. His teacher had told him that he should learn several lines of the speech. The student practiced by saying it until he could recite it with gusto from memory, with the inflections and intonations he imagined the great orator must have used. But, then his teacher tested the student's learning by giving him a copy of the speech, in writing, with blank spaces appearing where certain key words were omitted. Writing the proper words in the blanks did not give the student much difficulty; he knew what they should be. But because he didn't realize he would be tested in this manner, the student had not attempted to learn the way in which the words were spelled. Consequently, he failed the test because the teacher considered each misspelled word a wrong response. It is hard to imagine a set of circumstances that would do more to convince a student that he shouldn't try to learn.

A major reason for using behavioral objectives is to communicate. Any teacher should be able to communicate to his colleagues, his students, his supervisors, and the public, the intent and purpose of his instructional programs. In short, the teacher should be able to tell all who are interested what he expects his students to learn from instruction. He should be able to tell them in a way that will communicate to them in a consistent, orderly, and efficient manner.

This means that the teacher must first see the ends of his own instruction. If he is going to communicate, the teacher must have something to communicate. It is probable that teachers often fail to communicate because they do not have the ends, or objectives, of their own instruction in mind. When pressured, they may state some specific objectives that they may have clearly in mind at the time they are communicating them. But it frequently happens that the intentions of today are not the intentions of tomorrow. It is easy to forget what one meant by an oral statement delivered two or three months ago, particularly when it may not have been too clear. Therefore, it is desirable to have written objectives that communicate across time as well as at a point in time.


Writers of objectives who can agree on the definitions of the behavioral verbs in this program will be able to communicate more effectively with one another and with other people about their objectives. By mutually agreeing to follow set definitions for behavioral verbs, persons who are concerned with the instructional process will find that their communications concerning educational outcomes will be much enhanced. Likewise, a teacher who formulates a behavioral objective will not have to figure out several months later what he meant by the behavioral verb that he used when he wrote objectives for his instruction. The list of defined verbs makes it possible for those who are composing behavioral objectives to construct objectives of greater clarity, communicate more effectively, and to formulate objectives more creatively.


Behavioral verbs are the heart of learning objectives and lesson plans. If used consistently, they are a highly effective way to indicate, and communicate to others, specific, observable student behavior. Behavioral verbs describe an observable product or action. Teachers and others constantly make inferences about student learning on the basis of what students do or produce.

It follows then, that one way to define curriculum is in terms of intended student behaviors. Behavioral objectives based on a set of verbs that have some measure of agreement as to meaning can provide a useful vehicle for the purpose of developing curriculum. In education, there is no substitute for a professional vocabulary, and defined behavioral verbs are an essential component of the vocabulary.

The following verbs and their definitions can be helpful when composing behavioral objectives. These are general definitions that describe only the observable behavior and do not include linkages to any specific content. These definitions are provided for those who seek a basis for a technical vocabulary regarding student performance.


  • APPLY A RULE: To state a rule as it applies to a situation, object or event that is being analyzed. The statement must convey analysis of a problem situation and/or its solution, together with the name or statement of the rule that was applied.
  • ASSESS: To stipulate the conditions by which the behavior specified in an objective may be ascertained. Such stipulations are usually in the form of written descriptions. For obvious reasons, assess is rarely used as a verb in behavioral objectives at the elementary school level.
  • CLASSIFY: To place objects, words, or situations into categories according to defined criteria for each category. The criteria must be made known to the student.
  • COMPOSE: To formulate a composition in written, spoken, musical or artistic form.
  • CONSTRUCT: To make a drawing, structure, or model that identifies a designated object or set of conditions.
  • DEFINE: To stipulate the requirements for inclusion of an object, word, or situation in a category or class. Elements of one or both of the following must be included: (1) The characteristics of the words, objects, or situations that are included in the class or category. (2) The characteristics of the words, objects, or situations that are excluded in the class or category. To define is to set up criteria for classification.
  • DEMONSTRATE: To perform the operations necessary for the application of an instrument, model, device, or implement. NOTE: There is a temptation to use demonstrate in objectives such as, "the student will demonstrate his knowledge of vowel sounds." As the verb is defined, this is improper use of it.
  • DESCRIBE: To name all of the necessary categories of objects, object properties, or event properties that are relevant to the description of a designated situation. The objective is of the form, "The student will describe this order, object, or event," and does not limit the categories that may be used in mentioning them. Specific or categorical limitations, if any, are to be given in the performance standards of each objective. When using this verb in an objective, it is helpful to include a statement to the effect of what the description, as a minimum, must reference.
  • DIAGRAM: To construct a drawing with labels and with a specified organization or structure to demonstrate knowledge of that organization or structure. Graphic charting and mapping are types of diagramming, and these terms may be used where more exact communication of the structure of the situation and response is desired.
  • DISTINGUISH: To identify under conditions when only two contrasting identifications are involved for each response.
  • ESTIMATE: To assess the dimension of an object, series of objects, event or condition without applying a standard scale or measuring device. Logical techniques of estimation, such as are involved in mathematical interpolation, may be used. See MEASURE.
  • EVALUATE: To classify objects, situations, people, conditions, etc., according to defined criteria of quality. Indication of quality must be given in the defined criteria of each class category. Evaluation differs from general classification only in this respect.
  • IDENTIFY: To indicate the selection of an object of a class in response to its class name, by pointing, picking up, underlining, marking, or other responses.


Verbs in the list of COMMONLY USED BEHAVIORAL VERBS are applicable mainly to learning behavior that measures the application of one or more thought processes. Thus, they are of general interest because they may be applied to any of several areas of instruction. There are some learning behaviors, however, that cannot be demonstrated in a manner prescribed by any of the general definitions. Many of these are in the area of psychomotor learning and are so well defined through common usage that little definition is required.

No attempt has been made in this glossary to define verbs that may be used in objectives in the many other areas of instruction. Teachers of industrial arts, for example, will not find in the glossary many of the verbs they commonly use to describe student performance. Among those who would be using such objectives, it is probably not necessary to define the common verbs that are used. Cut, saw, drill, turn, plane and shape probably carry enough common meaning among those who use them that additional definition would be superfluous.

Business education, word processing, typing, home economics, and auto mechanics are other areas of instruction where both the general list of defined verbs and specialized verbs, defined through common usage in the area, may be used.

The lists of verbs for specialized areas are therefore more illustrative and comprehensive. They illustrate the type of definitions that could be established for each specialized area – of which there are literally thousands. It is possible, however, that those who design learning experiences for any specialized area will find a need for using some verbs in the list of COMMONLY USED BEHAVIORAL VERBS.


Improving the style in which behavioral objectives are written is not a matter of making them more interesting and exciting to the reader. Written instructional objectives are technical communications among professional people who use them in technical ways in their work. It is unlikely that any program about behavioral objectives will ever make anybody’s list of best sellers. Neither will medical or legal reference books.

Behavioral objectives are meant to communicate the specific, technical intentions of their authors to others who have sufficient knowledge and technical skills to interpret them. Technique of writing then becomes a matter of applying rules of consistency and specificity to the composition of objectives. Variety of technique in composing objectives is not the spice of life; quite the contrary. If rules that guide the composition and format of objectives are frequently changed, or if they are inconsistently applied, confusion as to the meaning of objectives will surely result. It also follows that any curriculum based on specification of learning outcomes in the form of behavioral objectives will be a poor guide for inferences about learning if consistent rules for formulating the objectives are not explicit and followed by the curriculum developers.

It is probable that several sets of rules that would be adequate could be devised. To draw an analogy from the field of mathematics, numbers may be expressed by a limitless number of numeration systems. However, if a mathematician were to try to communicate with others without adopting one system and sticking with it, or if he shifted from one system to another without telling his audience, the only thing he would accomplish would be to confuse them. He would not communicate.

A writer of behavioral objectives who has no rules, or who shifts from one set to another, or who inconsistently applies the rules that he has adopted fails to communicate in an effective manner. It is the hope of the author that writers of behavioral objectives will adopt a set of rules of composition and stick with them. The evidence at the present time is that this is not the case. Many objectives are being called behavioral that do not meet the criteria expressed herein or elsewhere. If each writer develops and follows his own set of criteria, then we who read and use objectives will find ourselves in the position of using a different "base" for each set of objectives, if the author reveals his base, and in hopeless confusion if he does not.

These criteria of technique have been extensively discussed already. A behavioral objective must have three parts: (1) a defined behavioral verb, (2) described conditions that permit the behavior called for by the verb, and (3) a description of the lower level of acceptable performance (criteria). The remainder of Part 4 is an explanation of additional technique requirements that will contribute to clarity of expressing outcomes of instruction in the form of behavioral objectives.

Omit the verb phrase "will be able to" as the objective predicate.

Instruction based upon behavioral objectives has a fundamental premise that learning may be inferred only from a sample of learner behavior. It is therefore not a defensible practice to infer that a learner has learned until he performs the behavior from which learning may be inferred. The only way to tell if the learner is "able" to perform is to have him perform . If he performs, then he is "able." The use of "be able to" in behavioral objectives contributes to their length without contributing to their meaning.

Because objectives should communicate as effectively and efficiently as possible, it is better to omit the verb phrase "will be able to" from all objectives. There is an additional objection to the use of "will be able to" in behavioral objectives that goes to the roots of language usage. A behavioral objective should communicate action on the part of the learner. Although action may be communicated through means other than the predicate of the sentence, communication is enhanced if the predicate of the sentence is a verb that denotes the action being taken or to be taken. In an objective in which "will be able to" is used, it is the predicate of the sentence and does not communicate any type of action or behavior. Technically, "will name," communicates much more clearly than "will be able to name."

Difficulty Writing Outcomes?

Try asking yourself these questions:

  • Ideally and briefly, what would a skeptic need (what evidence needs to be present, what specific behavior needs to be visible) in order to see that your students are achieving the major outcomes you have set out for them?
  • In your experience, what evidence tells you when students have met these outcomes– how do you know when they’re “getting” it?
  • Why do you use current assignments, course structure, and activities?
  • What is it you want to help students learn through these course elements?
  • What do you want your students to learn and in what ways do you want them to grow?
  • In the past, have your goals for students been realistic?
  • What do your students usually learn and in what ways do they usually grow?
  • Where do students have difficulty; what do they consistently not get?
  • If you ran into a student who had taken your class the previous semester, what would you hope the student would say about what s/he took away from your course?