By the end of this post you will be able to:

  1. Explain how learning outcomes can reduce lecture preparation time while increasing teaching effectiveness;
  2. Combine verbs with course content to construct learning outcomes; and
  3. Use higher order learning outcomes to challenge yourself to innovate your teaching practices.

I used to make teaching unnecessarily hard for myself. Starting my academic career after a decade of non-academic work, I felt an internal pressure to prove myself, which manifested itself in lecture prep … lots and lots of lecture prep. My lectures were bursting with facts, multiple theories, examples, more facts, more theories… My students would scribble pages and pages of notes, and we would all leave the classroom slightly (or more than slightly) exhausted.

I was a few years into teaching before I was introduced to the idea of learning outcomes, and my initial reaction was profound skepticism. It seemed too easy: first identify the key things that the student should be able to do by the end of the class session, and then prep the session around achieving these outcomes. That was it? It triggered all sorts of resistance for me: using this approach would be dumbing down teaching, I feared, or “teaching to the test”. But by that time teaching was a somewhat dissatisfying experience, as my students struggled to identify the key ideas amongst the abundance of material I was presenting to them, and the amount of time I was devoting to lecture prep was unsustainable in light of my tenure track research demands. I figured I had nothing to lose by trying something different.

I started where all learning outcomes journeys start: with the revised “Bloom’s taxonomy”, which identifies six levels of progressively more challenging educational goals, each with associated verbs (levels with verb examples: (1) remember – state, list; (2) understand – describe, explain; (3) apply – solve, interpret; (4) analyze – compare, distinguish; (5) evaluate – defend, critique; (6) create – construct, design). For each class, I would select some learning outcome verbs, attach the verbs to the content I wanted to cover, and start preparing my lecture.

My lecture prep time reduced dramatically. While it used to be unclear to me what should be included or excluded (and as a result, I included almost everything), using learning outcomes for each class draws clear lines in the sand, allowing me to focus on the key points with greater depth. I also discovered that the outcomes push me to adopt more engaging teaching strategies; for example, selecting the verb “critique” requires me to create a opportunity for students to actively assess the strengths and weaknesses of a position, and the verb “construct” directs me to create a teaching strategy for students to apply ideas in original ways. Students have generally responded positively to my efforts to use different approaches, and despite my earlier concerns about watering material down, I quickly found students were engaging with core ideas at a higher level. I present the learning outcomes explicitly at the start of each class, and return to them as class proceeds. Students appear to appreciate the structure, and some tell me the learning outcomes are helpful study guides.

I remain amazed that something as easy as selecting verbs before starting to prepare my class challenges me to approach material in new ways and to be creative in my teaching practices. Teaching has transformed from a somewhat exhausting to an energizing experience for me. My past skepticism has been replaced by a simple regret that I didn’t adopt the practice earlier.

Loleen Berdahl is Professor and Head of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and coauthor (with Jonathan Malloy) of the forthcoming book Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences and Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, summer 2018). After completing her PhD, she worked for ten years in the nonprofit think tank world. Her research considers public attitudes, intergovernmental relations, and political science career development, and she is the recipient of three University of Saskatchewan teaching awards. Follow her on Twitter (@loleen_berdahl), where she tweets about political science, higher education, and opportunities for students, among other topics.