The new syllabus recently adopted by Wichita State requires professors to write “measurable outcomes” structured around active verbs. The Quality Matters rubric, adopted by the Office of Online Learning a little over a year ago uses a similar term when it asks for course-level “objectives.”
So, what’s the difference?
On the face of it, the words “objective” and “outcome” are very similar. Both describe statements that structure a student’s learning in a course. Technically, there are differences between the concepts, however. Objectives are statements about “intended” learning and and outcomes are statements about the “achieved” learning. These concepts come straight out of educational theory with objectives being the much older term, hailing from the early 20th century, and outcomes coming in mid-century with the upheaval in educational theory in the 1960s.
For most purposes, it is probably fine to use the terms outcomes and objectives interchangeably. After all, in the modern sense, they are very similar in structure and use. All outcomes and objectives are essentially statements that follow this pattern:
Students + Action Verb + Learning Statement + Measurement
For example, in my American Government course, I might have an outcome/objective that reads:
Students will analyze the Constitution as a living document.
Both outcomes and objectives can be written to function at any level in the course from weekly assignments to full-on course statements. The key is they contain an active verb that can be measured. The measurement itself does not necessarily need to be included as part of the outcome/objective statement, and in fact outcomes rarely contain statements of their specific measures. As the professor, I can provide a rubric that will guide the students’ submissions and my grading, and that rubric functions to communicate how a particular outcome/objective will be measured.
In Quality Matters courses the ultimate goal is to have all aspects of any course aligned with the outcomes/objectives stated in the course. This means there will be a set list of course outcomes/objectives that guide “sub” outcomes/objectives at the module/unit/chapter level. These outcomes/objectives are linked to specific assignments that are graded with clear rubrics, and the whole thing holds together as a single entity.
This type of course construction can be challenging to set up because it requires the professor to think in terms of specific, measurable products the students can submit within the time of the course. Keep in mind, however, that qualitative measurement as well as quantitative measurement both “count.” The critical thing is the measurement itself.
The standardized syllabus template recently adopted at Wichita State contains the following statement: “Typically, undergraduate learning outcomes are of the ‘knowledge,’ ‘comprehension,’ and ‘application’ type and graduate learning outcomes are of the ‘analysis,’ ‘synthesis,’ and ‘evaluation,’ type.” As you can imagine, outcomes/objectives at the undergraduate levels often have more quantitative measurement, and graduate level courses end up with more qualitative measurement.
In the end, it’s less important if you use the word “outcome” and another person uses the word “objective,” than it is to understand that statements such as these help to structure your students’ learning and help you to choose supportive content and assignments. The statements themselves vary widely from course-to-course and by level of instruction, and that’s okay. They are a reflection of the academic experience and are necessarily going to be individual to each course.