Learning outcomes

IN4OBE - International Network for Outcome Based Education > Learning outcomes

Thanks to the pioneering work of Benjamin Bloom in 1968 and the persistent implementation efforts of his doctoral student James Block, OBE implementation in North America had taken hold by the mid 1970’s. It was not until 1986, however, that any serious attention was given to what learning outcomes actually were. Why? Because the entire educational reform world was focused more awarding scores and points for everything that students learned and did, rather than documenting the learning itself. The OBE practitioners of the day had gotten fixed on one particular number: 80 – the standard Bloom had used in his Mastery Learning model to indicate learning ‘success’. Consequently, and with the best of intentions, teachers were doing everything possible to get their students to the 80 level. Unfortunately, what they were doing to reach this goal was often haphazard, inconsistent, and contradictory from teacher to teacher. All of this came strikingly to my attention in 1986, and, if the truth be known, I threatened to quit the movement because no one could define what a learning outcome was other than “80 points”. Fortunately a group of trusted practitioners and I immediately tackled that issue, and with the week we had a definition


Defined by Words

The first thing it meant and implied is that an outcome wasn’t a score, or a percent, or points.  It was a tangible action that was shaped directly and explicitly by the words used to define the action.  Outcomes, then, were carefully defined action statements, and this implied that:

Students had to do all the words in the statement,

Teachers had to teach all the words in the statement, and

Assessments had to allow all the words in the statement to be manifested.

So with the stroke of a pen we had turned outcomes into substance.  Not only that, every word of the substance mattered!  Decades of doling out and averaging points and scores was being replaced by substance, and it was a HUGE CHALLENGE for everyone because you can’t add up and average substance like you can do with points! Substance meant something tangible!

When Does ‘Culminating’ Really Happen?

Moreover, for our definition team the word culminating meant ‘at or after the end’, but at first no one knew which ‘end’ that meant. U.S. teachers were accustomed to each Friday being ‘the end’ of a unit of instruction. Therefore, most of them couldn’t see beyond averaging daily points and weekly points every Friday. But did ‘culminating’ just mean the end of the week? Or did it mean the grading period? Or the semester? Or the school year? Or June? Or September? Or students’ graduation from their current school? No one knew.

All we knew when we initially deliberated the meaning of ‘culminating’ was:

1) The end wasn’t what happened during a given time block,

2) The end wasn’t every Friday – which eliminated the legitimacy of averaging lots of micro things along the way, and

3) The larger the period of time an ‘end’ subsumed, the more macro, complex, and significant the relevant outcome needed to be.

Hence, our definition compelled educators to look beyond the daily details of the curriculum and focus on a larger conception of what a learning outcomes really was.

Active Learning and Demonstrations

But the dilemma around ‘culminating’ paled in comparison to the one posed by the word demonstration. At that time, 90% of all the things educators called outcomes, objectives, or learning goals started with the verbs know or understand. But know and understand weren’t what we considered to be ‘demonstration verbs’.  To have a demonstration, we argued, learners need to DO something that is tangible, visible or observable. In effect, they have to apply what they know or understand, not simply remember things for a paper-pencil test. Demonstrating something puts learning into action, and proper action/application requires skill and competence, not just mental processing and having a good memory.

Since our definition directly implied that outcomes need to start with action verbs, they, in turn, require students to ‘execute the verb’ as well as know the content. By the same token, an outcome requires teachers to ‘teach the verb’ as well as the content, otherwise learners won’t be able to carry out the demonstration process determined by the verb. And, of course, assessments had to follow suit; they had to ‘allow the verb to be demonstrated’. We soon found, however, that we also had to draw a sharp distinction between very simple verbs/processes (such as name, list, and underline), and more complex and powerful ones (like explain, design, and produce).

Learning that Really Matters in the Long Run

All of this eventually led to a term that further expanded the meaning of what an outcome was. We called it: Outcomes of Significance, and suggested that the word ‘significance’ meant something that needs to last and really matter in the long run. By emphasizing the word ‘significance’ we eventually eliminated this Friday, this grading period, this semester, and this school year as definers of ‘the long run’. But which ‘long run’ did OBE implementers ultimately have in mind? High school graduation? College? University? Or life? Again, we weren’t sure, but within a year those questions led us to create ‘The Demonstration Mountain’ (shown below) and it, in turn, led to the development of a future-focused approach to designing outcomes that we called “Transformational”.

Outcomes Take Many Forms

The revelation that led to the development of the Demonstration Mountain diagram was simple: Outcomes – culminating demonstrations of learning – take may ‘forms’. The Mountain simply illustrates the increasing complexity (and significance) of those forms. In fact, the higher you climb, the more complex a whole set of critical factors becomes. The performance context/ setting gets more complex, as do the integration, synthesis, and functional application of the elements that constitute a demonstration. For example, imagine that the Mountain is like learning to drive a car.  First comes the written test of rules and specifics of traffic signs and symbols; next comes learning how the car’s buttons, pedals, signals, and lights actually work; and finally it’s you behind the wheel driving with an instructor on real streets; and then you’re alone, by yourself, on real streets in dense urban traffic.

The IN4OBE team is glad to assist educators to drive safely on the road leading to advanced, successful implementation of Outcomes of Significance. Don’t hesitate to ask us for support.