By Karen Cowell, RN, PhD, SkillsCommons Ambassador, CSU-MERLOT

One of the more challenging tasks for new instructors in college education is developing learning outcomes for curricula and courses that will align with workforce competencies. Learning outcomes are the framework around which the scope and sequence of curriculum and learning activities within a program of study are built. A new free and open resource that explains learning outcomes clearly is the California State University (CSU)-MERLOT SkillsCommons new faculty development course, “Industry Expert to Expert Instructor.” The course provides user-friendly guidance for defining learning outcomes and developing competencies with exemplary practices such as Bloom’s Taxonomy to define the skills foundational to the critical thinking needed for a profession.

There is some variation in definitions of “learning outcomes” and “competencies,” so it is wise to be familiar with local institutional definitions before starting the process. For example, at some institutions, instructors must develop course objectives, student learning outcomes at the course level, and program learning outcomes at the curriculum level, while in other colleges the terms “course objectives” and “learning outcomes” may be used interchangeably.

Where should the development of learning outcomes begin? Start by determining what students should know and be able to do at the end of a program of study or at the end of the course. After writing terminal learning outcomes, work backwards though a sequence of intermediate learning milestones to the beginning of the program of study (e.g., course, certificate, degree, etc.). It is important to determine what the foundational or prerequisite materials must be for the student to succeed in the course. Often, safety principles and introduction to basic tools of the industry are embedded in foundational learning outcomes.

What should be in the middle of a curriculum? Learning outcomes for courses should build from course to course as students advance through a curriculum. When I have assisted instructors in curriculum design, I’ve asked them to tell me the “threads” for studying their trade. The threads are the concepts that appear in many or all of the courses in the discipline. For example, for an automotive technology program, one thread is the application of paint to a repair. Learning outcomes for a foundational course in auto tech would include types of paints used after repairs, while advanced classes would include specialty paints, special applications of paints, and decorative finishes in the capstone course.

How is Bloom’s Taxonomy used in writing learning outcomes? Workforce competencies require a full range of skills and knowledge, from rote memorization to complex critical thinking. Bloom’s Taxonomy defines characteristics of the skills and knowledge across the full range of skills and knowledge, enabling instructors to identify learning outcomes that align with the many categories of learning in the taxonomy. Introductory courses typically focus on lower-level/foundational knowledge and skills (lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy) while, in capstone courses, program learning outcomes are focused on critical thinking, problem solving, and judgment skills (higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy). By the end of a program of study, students should be analyzing aspects of their discipline, evaluating their own work and the work of others, and possibly creating new work. The processes of analyzing and evaluating work are critical skills that will be implemented in the workplace when graduates obtain their first positions in industry.

What resources for learning outcomes are available? It is important for instructors to communicate with other industry experts to validate their curriculum’s learning outcomes in addition to using their own experiences. You want the skills and knowledge students are developing in your courses to be aligned with the competencies industries want to acquire. Faculty colleagues and advisory committees generally review learning outcomes for courses and the curriculum with state colleges and universities, especially with transfer programs for articulated programming in disciplines such as pre-engineering technology, healthcare, graphic design, and criminal justice. Graduates of some technical and community college programs will want additional education in their disciplines after graduation. High school teachers who instruct students in articulating programs of study can also provide consultation. Accreditation organizations for programs may suggest learning outcomes for disciplines and, occasionally, state licensing boards and regulations provide guidance on curriculum learning outcomes.

Curriculum design and the development of learning outcomes are essential to developing a skilled workforce for 21st-century employment. With SkillsCommons’ free and open online course, “Industry Expert to Expert Instructor,” industry experts can be efficiently and effectively empowered to be an excellent instructor and have a personally rewarding experience teaching.


Karen Cowell is a CSU-MERLOT SkillsCommons Ambassador and member of the Industry Expert to Expert Instructor IMPACTcommunity. Read “Free and Open Support for Industry Experts New to the Classroom,” also by Karen Cowell, for an overview of the course.