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Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 62: Assessing Learning Outcomes

Welcome to the sixty-second issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education and professional development in teaching. This February, our topic is "Assessing Learning Outcomes."

For more information on learning outcomes and assessment, download our Teaching Tips document on Degree-Level Expectations and Course Learning Outcomes [pdf].

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

Best Practices

Learning objectives are statements that describe specific instructional goals that are both observable and measurable (Cusson, 2012). Learning outcomes describe what students are expected to have learned or achieved; as a result, they usually describe what students will be capable of doing, or what evidence will be provided to substantiate learning. As summarized by Deakin University, “each intended learning outcome should describe the observable knowledge or skills that you expect students to be able to demonstrate as a result of their work in the unit."

A key part of an effective learning outcome is the assessment of learning. An effective assessment will be aligned with the learning outcome. A properly aligned assessment will provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate the skills or knowledge that is required them to have successfully met the learning outcome.

Assessment Methods

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario has broken down common learning outcomes into five areas; for each area they have provided suggested assessments that are "likely to be authentic in multiple disciplinary and professional contexts" and adaptable for individual, pair, or group work in face-to-face, online, blended, or hybrid courses.

Critical thinking, problem solving, judgment and insight

  • Case studies and open problems, when well-designed, have been found to be “highly relevant, motivational, and cognitively demanding.” They give students the opportunity to “synthesize and apply a broad array of content and process knowledge.”
  • Modified essay questions “combine the strengths of case studies and essays in an exam setting by presenting students with a structured series of open-ended essay questions to answer in relation to a case study.” MEQs follow a path of increasing complexity, where students are presented with a bit more information after answering one question and moving on to the next, requiring them to show a deeper level of integration, analysis and evaluation as they complete each question.
  • Problem sets “are relatively easy to design and grade, can be scaffolded by using gradually more complex problems to build on each other, and are fairly rigorous and reliable if well designed.”
  • Debates, mock court sessions, oral arguments, and other simulated problem-solving allow students to apply critical thinking skills to real-world situations and can be adjusted to meet different levels of learning.
  • Analysis, defined as “distinguishing parts of a whole and distilling information so that it is clearly understood” can be assessed by asking students to break up an argument into its component claims and logic, deconstruct assumptions embedded in a data set, or problematize a “seemingly unproblematic statement.”

Research and Scholarship

  • Research reviews and annotated bibliographies work best when “students must synthesize the results of their review rather than leaving the individual contributions disconnected” or “specify the sequence in which others should read the entries” along with a rationale explaining the reason for the intended order.
  • Long-term research projects, which can take the form of reports, theses, research papers, presentations, posters, or videos, encourage students to “use information to develop and test hypotheses and predictions, measure and compare multiple outcomes and variables, classify phenomena using schemas of principles or taxonomy, conduct experiments… [or] synthesize large bodies of scholarship.”
  • Inquiry-based learning, when properly implemented, requires “synthesis, interpretation, evaluation, and application of what students learn in the program and not just the particular course.” These large-scale final projects can also be used to assess communication, time-management skills, and project management skills.


  • Essays and visual essays – these types of assessments can work for a variety of learning outcomes depending on their structure. Essays can be critical, reflective, or persuasive, or use multimedia to visually convey an “in-depth and sustained engagement with ideas.”
  • Reports, short stories, memos, proposals, briefs and online journals can be used together with other forms of assessment to capture several learning outcomes. This can be done, for instance, by combining a research report with a “critical reflection on the process of research, followed by advocacy for a course of action the student believes is justified by the research results.”
  • Oral assessment can be a valuable tool to assess “adaptability, quick thinking, and grace under pressure” and a student’s ability to “answer questions, debate or converse in the moment.” One benefit of oral assessment is that it can provide students who may not excel at written communication the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the course material in a way that may suit them better. By combining oral presentations with slideshows and videos, instructors can assess students’ oral, textual and visual communication skills simultaneously. Oral assessments can be intimidating for students who find public speaking difficult, so HEQCO recommends that they be provided as a choice amongst other assessment options, or by allowing students to build up to a final assessment with many opportunities to practice in class.
  • Poster shows are especially effective for assessing the skills needed by students completing degrees in science, engineering, health sciences and business. Posters can be assigned to individuals or groups and can provide students with scaffolded formative feedback. Students creating and presenting posters are required “to summarize a mass of information succinctly, interpret and communicate it visually, and answer questions about it while competing for time and attention.”

Creativity and Design

  • Diagrams, design simulations, role-plays, and visual models assess creativity alongside “research skills, comprehension of course content and communication skills.”

Self-Regulation and Professional Competence

  • Reflective writing will assist students to “integrate course material into their own thinking, make connections between ideas initially perceived as isolated and gradually see the course and the discipline as relevant to their own lives and the world.” This form of meta-cognition may help students develop self-regulatory and critical thinking skills.
  • Practica require students to demonstrate their mastery of the course material as applied in real-world or simulated real-world settings. They are, by their nature, useful for authentically assessing almost any learning outcome at multiple levels and can provide students with immediate feedback from instructors, supervisors and peers.
  • Simulations can provide a similar learning experience to a practica in the controlled environment of the classroom. This can be a good way of providing students with the necessary skills for completing a practicum later in their academic career, or building authentic experiences into a large class.
  • Learning portfolios are excellent for assessing either course or program-level outcomes, as they require students to collect and revise evidence that they have collected over time. This evidence can include multimedia or electronic material, and can be aligned with other assessments, such as journals or other forms of reflective writing. The learning portfolio allows for the “triangulation of evidence, demonstration of change and meta-cognitive reflection on strengths and weaknesses related to program-level learning.


Work Cited

Cusson, M. (2012). Moving towards and outcomes-based curriculum. Educational Development Centre, Carleton University.

Deakin University. Writing Intended Learning Outcomes.

Goff, L., et al. (2015). Learning Outcomes Assessment: A Practitioner’s Handbook. Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.



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"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Instructional Design and Research Strategist at the Learning & Teaching Office, Ryerson University.

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