Should we share Learning Outcomes / Objectives with students at the start of a lesson?


Oct 4 GUEST POST: Should I share my learning outcomes with students?

Learning Scientists

For Teachers, For Researchers, Guest Posts

Dr. Sara M. Fulmer is an Educational Developer at the University of Guelph. She supports faculty, graduate students, and academic programs with implementing evidence-based approaches to enhance pedagogical practices and students’ learning. Her areas of research include student motivation in challenging contexts and teacher professional development. She received her B.A., B.Ed., and M.A. from Brock University in Ontario, Canada, and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Notre Dame. You can find her on Twitter @sara_fulmer. Sara previously contributed guest posts on learner-centered syllabi and how manipulatives can hinder learning.


How do you know which path to choose, or whether you have arrived, if you do not have a destination? In the context of teaching and learning, learning outcomes are the destination.


This post responds to a reader’s question, “Is there any evidence to support sharing written learning outcomes prior to teaching a topic?”

By the end of reading this blog post, readers should be able to:

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of a learning outcome using a checklist
  • Describe the benefits of learning outcomes for students and teachers
  • Identify strategies to share learning outcomes with students

What are learning outcomes?

“Learning outcomes are measurable statements that articulate what students should know, be able to do, or value as a result of taking a course or completing a program” (1). In addition to a course or program, we can also write learning outcomes for smaller elements of the learning process, such as an assignment, single class session, or unit. Effective learning outcomes are student-centered, specific, and measurable, and provide a road map for determining the content, organization, and assessment of the course.


To learn more about writing effective learning outcomes, see this post on setting learning outcomes and this resource on the differences between learning goals, learning objectives, and learning outcomes.

Why share learning outcomes with students?

Learning outcomes can increase student learning in foundational knowledge or short-term retention (2), (3) and higher-order cognitive processes, such as application or transfer (3), (4), (5). For example, student exam performance increased after a faculty member redesigned an introductory biology course by creating learning goals for each class session, making these goals explicit to students in each lecture, and labeling exam questions with the corresponding learning goal (4). These students also rated learning goals as the most helpful component of lecture, beating out clicker questions, quizzes, vocabulary lists, and group work (4).

But why do learning outcomes improve learning? Learning outcomes shape what students learn. When students know what they are expected to learn, they can direct their attention towards those particular areas (6) and use deliberate practice to strategically work towards learning those concepts and skills. Students in courses with clear learning outcomes aligned with the assessments, compared to students in courses without these components, are more likely to spend extra time studying and extend their knowledge by seeking additional information (7). Stating learning outcomes at the start of a lesson, unit, or course is also an important element of guided instruction, which is more beneficial than less-structured approaches for learning, particularly for novice learners.


Knowing the learning outcomes in advance also helps students practice metacognition and become self-regulated learners (3), (8), (9). For example, undergraduate students report that having clear learning outcomes helps them to narrow their focus on important concepts and skills, organize their notes, track their learning towards those outcomes, and improve their study practices (10). Because learning outcomes help students to make strategic decisions, students also feel an increased sense of control or ownership over their learning (1), (9).

Sharing learning outcomes prior to learning can also increase students’ motivation and engagement (2), (4), (11). Learning outcomes give learners a sense of purpose for their learning, answering the frequently asked question, “Why am I learning this?” Learning outcomes help students feel more connected to the course material and perceive the content as useful (8), (10). When students understand what is expected of their learning, they are more likely to feel that they can be successful in meeting those expectations. For example, students who receive assignments with a clear purpose and explicit connection to course learning outcomes report greater academic confidence and a feeling of mastery of important skills (2). This is particularly true for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students (2). One reason why students feel more confident is because learning outcomes reduce ambiguity in a course. This is exemplified in a quote from an undergraduate student in Wang et al.’s (7) study:

“They (The instructors) are supposed to spell out what I shall achieve so that I do not have to guess. I know what they intend to teach, but I am not very clear what kind of outcomes they want us to achieve. For example, to what level are we going to apply the knowledge we have learnt.”

Worried about learning outcomes limiting students’ creativity? Check out this post on ways to use learning outcomes to set high standards and foster creativity and innovation.

Having clear learning outcomes also benefits teachers. The following table summarizes the literature on these benefits.


How can I share learning outcomes with students?

Learning outcomes can appear anywhere, such as a slide, whiteboard, handout, classroom poster, or in your learner-centered course syllabus. For creative ideas, check out these strategies for higher education, and for K-12, 40 ways to introduce learning objectives and this teacher’s decision-making process regarding how to share learning outcomes in his class.

The most important step of sharing learning outcomes is to ensure that students understand the learning outcomes. Engage students in a discussion about the learning outcomes with questions like:

  • Using your own words, what does this outcome mean?
  • How will I know if I’ve achieved this outcome?
  • Why do you think it’s important that we learn this?
  • How does this learning outcome relate to something we’ve already learned?

Bonus: these questions also help to stimulate students’ interest and curiosity!

At the end of the topic or unit, ask students to write on an index card or sticky note an answer to: “What do you think you were supposed to learn from this lesson/class/unit?” (9).

You can also introduce students to learning outcomes through a pre-assessment, asking students to rate their level of confidence or level of current knowledge/skill for each of the learning outcomes. The image below offers some examples of how learning outcomes were transformed into survey items.


This strategy offers several added bonuses:

  • Gathering information about students’ current level of knowledge before you begin teaching a unit will help you adjust your instruction to meet students where they are.
  • Students have an opportunity to think about their current knowledge with respect to each of the learning outcomes, while gaining insight into what they will be expected to know and be able to do.
  • You can track changes in students’ perceptions of their knowledge over time. Give students the same survey before and after the unit/course and compare their “pre” and “post” responses. Share the aggregated data with students to help them recognize how much they have learned.

How will you share learning outcomes with your students? Comment below!


(1) Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Setting Learning Outcomes.

(2) Winkelmes, M.-A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18.

(3) Levine, L. E., Fallahi, C. R., Nicoll-Senft, J. M., Tessier, J. T., Watson, C. L., & Wood, R. M. (2008). Creating significant learning experiences across disciplines. College Teaching, 56, 247-254.

(4) Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., & Weiss, M. (2009). Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in introductory biology. CBE Life Sciences Education, 8, 203-213.

(5) Rust, C., Price, M, & O’Donovan, B. (2003). Improving students’ learning by developing their understanding of assessment criteria and processes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28, 147-164.

(6) Rothkopf, E. Z., & Billington, M. J. (1979). Goal-guided learning from text: Inferring a descriptive processing model from inspection times and eye movements. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 310-327.

(7) Wang, X., Su, Y., Cheung, S., Wong, E., & Kwong, T. (2013). An exploration of Biggs’ constructive alignment in course design and its impact on students’ learning approaches. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38, 477-491.

(8) Reed, D. (2012). Clearly communicating the learning objective matters! Middle School Journal, 43, 16-24.

(9) Fletcher-Wood, H. (2013, October 6). How I’ve tried to share learning intentions better. A Guide to Improving Teaching Blog.

(10) Simon, B., & Taylor, J. (2009). What is the value of course-specific learning goals? Journal of College Science Teaching, 39, 52-57.

(11) Reynolds, H. L., & Kearns, K. D. (2017). A planning tool for incorporating backward design, active learning, and authentic assessment in the college classroom. College Teaching, 65, 17-27.


Research in 100 words – simple guide for busy teachers!

Research in 100 words


Simple summaries for busy teachers.

In the staff room, by the photocopier, on the back of the toilet door!

I hope that you find them useful – credit to Chris Moyse


Common Myths:

Elaborative interrogation:


Using data:

Working memory:

Ability groupings:

Self regulation:


 Ask questions:

Check understanding:

Cognitive load:

Daily review:

Pair words with graphics:

Independent practice:

Provide models:

Scaffolds for difficult tasks:

Present material in small steps:

Retrieval practice:                         

Alternating solved and unsolved problems:

Beliefs about intelligence:       

Know facts:                                            

What they already know:                   




New report on Cognitive Load Theory aimed at teachers (CLT).

By Greg Ashman:

I have been researching Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) for a couple of years now. During that time, I’ve blogged about CLT and I’ve often been asked if there is a teacher-friendly summary of the theory available.

Today, such a summary has been released by the New South Wales Centre for Education and Statistics (CESE with handle @nswcese on Twitter). It’s a pretty good take on CLT. John Sweller has read it and thinks they’ve managed to capture the essence of the theory pretty well.

The CESE paper looks at the principles of CLT and the main findings as they apply to teaching, including a brief description of the different ‘effects’ that have been noted. It also has a helpful section on criticisms and limitations (CLT is the subject of ongoing research). I strongly recommend the CESE paper to any teachers who are starting to dip their toes in the water.

It’s pleasing to see the number of popular descriptions of CLT increase in recent times. There are my own blog posts, of course, as well as a piece I wrote for The Conversation. In addition, we now have an interesting paper by Sweller that covers similar ground to the CESE paper while placing it in a chronology of how CLT developed. And thanks to the researchED movement, we also have a video of Sweller explaining the key ideas.

However, the best resource for those who want a complete picture of CLT is still a rather expensive book. Hopefully, in time, we will also have a popular version of this.

Successful learning – a must read for all staff!

Video 1:  Six Strategies for Effective Learning. The Learning Scientists.

This video from the Learning Scientists – working with the Memorize Academy – give students (and teachers) some very clear, practical advice based on the findings of cognitive psychology.  It makes the abstract ideas of interleaving and dual coding come alive.  In my view, if students are taught to adopt these strategies, they will see that effort applied to a successful strategy leads to success – a process which might foster a growth mindset as learning seems more possible.


Downloadable resources –

Video 2. Eduardo Briceño: The Learning Zone and the Performance Zone.

I heard about this from Guy Claxton during his talk at the Bryanston Education Summit 2017.


Guy was arguing that the Learning/Performance zones –  which are both essential to learning but require us to switch between them –  might constitute a more helpful model than growth and fixed mindsets which suggest a more permanent inherent state – a problematic idea, often unhelpfully value-laden; certainly hard to action.

It seems to me that Briceño’s idea of  Learning and Performance zones links to the roles of formative and summative assessment.  Just as he argues for more time spent in the Learning Zone, Daisy Christodoulou, Dylan Wiliam et al, advocate giving greater weight to formative assessment.

Crucially, Briceño is suggesting that the Learning Zone requires students to focus on deliberate practice on specific skills.  Although the zones embed the concept of GM, rather than replacing it, I find it’s a more tangible, technical, actionable concept than growth mindset altogether.  He is also very clear about the need for a low-stakes environment for the Learning Zone – just as with formative assessment.

Here’s an extract from the transcript.

” The learning zone is when our goal is to improve. Then we do activities designed for improvement,concentrating on what we haven’t mastered yet, which means we have to expect to make mistakes, knowing that we will learn from them. That is very different from what we do when we’re in our performance zone, which is when our goal is to do something as best as we can, to execute.Then we concentrate on what we have already mastered and we try to minimize mistakes.

Both of these zones should be part of our lives, but being clear about when we want to be in each of them, with what goal, focus and expectations, helps us better perform and better improve. The performance zone maximizes our immediate performance, while the learning zone maximizes our growth and our future performance. The reason many of us don’t improve much despite our hard work is that we tend to spend almost all of our time in the performance zone. This hinders our growth, and ironically, over the long term, also our performance.” 

So how can we spend more time in the learning zone?

  • First, we must believe and understand that we can improve, what we call a growth mindset.
  • Second, we must want to improve at that particular skill. There has to be a purpose we care about, because it takes time and effort.
  • Third, we must have an idea about how to improve, what we can do to improve, not how I used to practice the guitar as a teenager, performing songs over and over again, but doing deliberate practice.
  • And fourth, we must be in a low-stakes situation, because if mistakes are to be expected,then the consequence of making them must not be catastrophic, or even very significant. A tightrope walker doesn’t practice new tricks without a net underneath, and an athlete wouldn’t set out to first try a new move during a championship match.

Both videos and the ideas in the them are helpful in suggesting practical strategies for improving learning.

This article by Eduardo Briceño is also a good read:


Importantly, it’s the combination of the ideas in these videos that I think makes for powerful learning.  If Learning Zone practice doesn’t also deliberately embrace the technical business of explicit knowledge building, it won’t be as effective.  I know some people will interpret the Learning Zone as being in opposition to ‘rote learning’ for example.  They’re wrong.  Learning by heart in some disciplines is indeed the very kind of Learning Zone activity that, later, can support success in the Performance Zone with, for example, solving complex problems in high-stakes situations.

See this post for further ideas:  FACE It A Formula for Learning.

Blog post from @TeacherHead.

A reading list: learning, teaching & professional development

Harry Fletcher Wood:

On request, this is a list of good reads on learning, teaching, assessment, professional development and organisational culture; I’ve also added a few books not directly related to education I’ve found useful.  In each category I’ve chosen three books or articles I’ve found:

  • Well-evidenced or well thought through
  • Clear and well-written (at least relatively)
  • Formative and thought-provoking

All links to journal articles are open access; all links to books lead to Amazon.


Willingham, D. (2009) Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Daniel Willingham summarises how thinking and learning happen clearly, succinctly and usably.  He takes experiments (are we more likely to remember a piano if the cue is its weight or its sound), explains the psychological principles at work (context cues are critical) and provides principles for teachers (ways to structure a lesson around stories).

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. 1st ed. Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Council for Educational Research

Graham Nutthall went to amazing lengths to understand student learning.  By recording every word spoken, written and heard by individual students during a term, and comparing them with teachers’ goals, he was able to learn how many times students need to encounter a concept to learn it, the effect of peer culture and why better off students learn more.

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer J. J., Paas F. G. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review, 10, 251-296.

John Sweller and co review Cognitive Load Theory, defining three kinds of cognitive load: intrinsic, complicated material; extraneous, poorly designed instruction; and germane, complication which depresses performance but increases learning.  The authors offer a range of techniques which put these principles to work, like varying practice, avoiding splitting attention, and using dual coding (linking words and images).


Coe, R., Aloisi, C, Higgins, S., Elliot Major, L. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the Underpinning Research. Sutton Trust.

Rob Coe and his team summarise research on great teaching, highlighting effective instruction, pedagogical content knowledge, a positive classroom climate and efficient classroom management.  For variety, they also highlight practices which don’t work, including lavish praise, discovery learning and focusing on confidence before content.

Berliner, D. (1988) The Development of Expertise in Pedagogy. Charles W. Hunt Memorial Lecture presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (New Orleans, LA, February 17-20, 1988)

David Berliner reviews the stages in a teacher’s development from novice to expert, drawing on studies he’d conducted to show how experts work more fluidly, seeing differently and, eventually, end up working ‘arationally’.  Berliner concludes with suggestions for teacher educators, noting the value of routines and of evaluating experts and novices differently.  More about teacher expertise here.

Ball, D. Thames, M., Phelps, G. (2008) Content Knowledge for Teaching: What Makes It Special? Journal of Teacher Education 59(5) 389-407

Deborah Ball and her colleagues refined Lee Shulman’s definition of pedagogical content knowledge, identifying sub-domains including Common Content Knowledge – things which are generally known; Knowledge of Content and Students – how students are likely to respond; and Knowledge of Content and Teaching – effective ways to sequence representations and problems.  More about these ideas here.


Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. 1st ed. Bloomington (In.): Solution Tree.

Dylan Wiliam explains the five strategies of formative assessment in a clear, evidence-informed and practical way, providing a useful toolkit of both ideas and practical techniques.  I suspect I’ve referred to this book more than any other as a teacher.

Sadler, D.R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instruction Science 18, 119-144.

Sadler explains how feedback and self-monitoring should work: the teacher sharing criteria and exemplar for success and then leading students to experience and understand these criteria and helping them to close the gap between criteria and their own performances.

Christodoulou, D. (2017) Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford, OUP.

Daisy Christodoulou’s explanation of effective formative and summative assessment is impeccably clear.  She dismantles each concept, shows the limits to how they have been applied and offers clear directions for what we should do next.  An instruction manual for designing effective assessments.

Teacher development

Ericsson, A., Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Bodley Head, London

K. Anders Ericsson reviews the research on expertise and what makes deliberate practice different from any other kind of practice including its focus, feedback and the sequence we follow.  Deliberate practice is more complicated (and more limited) than he perhaps suggests, but this book offers thought-provoking material for the design of teacher education.

TNTP (2014) Fast Start: Training better teachers faster, with focus, practice and feedback

Teacher training doesn’t work, TNTP concluded.  Teachers who don’t master basic skills early never do master them, nor do they get better.  TNTP transformed their programmes to focus narrowly on key skills, developed through practice and coaching.  There’s much to learn here about the very start of a teacher’s career.

Grossman, P., Compton, C., Igra, D., Ronfeldt, M., Shahan, E., Williamson, P. (2009) Teaching Practice: A Cross-Professional Perspective. Teachers College Record (111, 9), 2055–2100

Comparing the preparation of priests, teachers and clinical psychologists Pam Grossman and her colleagues identified three key aspects: representations highlighting aspects of practice, decomposition of that practice into smaller units, and approximations which can be practised by trainees.  They also noted that we spend a lot more time practising preactive work (like planning) than interactive (like discussion).

Organisational culture

Heath, C., Heath, D. (2010) Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Random House.

The Heath brothers summarise the research around change around three characters: the elephant, our instincts; the rider, our rational mind; and the path, our contexts.  This is an invitation to work with the grain of human behaviour, and a toolbox of ways to do so.  More about the book here.

Gawande, A. (2012) Big Med: Restaurant chains have managed to combine quality control, cost control, and innovation. Can health care? New Yorker, 13 August

The Cheesecake Factory (an American restaurant chain) has standardised food production, offering high quality at affordable prices.  Healthcare in the US has failed to do the same thing: it is expensive and results are uneven.  Atul Gawande eplores how this might change and the barriers it faces: what happens when you try to standardise knee surgery, for example?

Kraft, M., Papay, J. (2014) Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 36(4) 476-500

What makes great teaching?  Kraft and Papay show that the kind of school you teach in makes a big difference: in schools rated by their teachers as better professional environments, teachers keep getting better – and student results follow.

Personal development

Loehr, J., Schwartz, T. (2001) The Making of a Corporate Athlete. Harvard Business Review

Awful title, worthwhile points.  Firstly, work-life balance is not just about reducing pressure: athletes stress their muscles in order to develop them; likewise we have to build physical, emotional, mental and spiritual strength.  Secondly, it’s the alternation between stress and relaxation that build athletes’ muscles and our capacity – and its habits and rituals that help us alternate successfully.

Covey, S. (2003). The seven habits of highly effective people. 1st ed. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

Another awful title, more worthwhile points: Steven Covey shows how you can identify a set of priorities and stick them: one of the most useful things I’ve ever learned.  More about the book here.

Broader perspectives on education

Berger, R. (2003) An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Heinemann

Ron Berger is a carpenter and an elementary school teacher.  This book shows how he brings the idea of craftsmanship into the classroom, designing authentic projects, creating a culture of craftsmanship and of continual improvement.  More about the book here.

Crehan, L. (2016) Cleverlands: The secrets behind the success of the world’s education superpowers. London, Unbound.

Lucy Crehan decided to discover what countries with successful education systems were really like.  Visiting Finland, Canada and Shanghai, among others, she lived with teachers, taught in schools and interviewed parents.  The result is a nuanced examination of the contribution made by schools, parents and teachers and a reasoned argument as to what we can learn from this.

Willis, P. (1978). Learning to Labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. Ashgate, Farnham.

Paul Willis’s book is a dense, powerful book which records the lives of a handful of boys with whom he spent much of their final year in school.  He looks at the culture of resistance ‘the lads’ develop, how they differentiate themselves from the school, and the consequences for their working lives.

Broader perspectives on everything

Gawande, A. (2015) Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End. Profile.

An immensely powerful book looks at how we think about and prepare for death – our own and others’ – and how we might do so better.

Hayek, F. (1944/2001) The Road to Serfdom. Oxford: Routledge.

In a short, exquisitely-articulated book, Friedrich Hayek persuaded me of the limits of central planning and provision.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Vintage Books.

The subtitle says it all: if we want to understand the sources of much of our disagreement, and so to discuss more productively, this book gets us a long way.

Further reading recommendations

I’m working through Paul Kirschner’s list of seminal papers in educational psychology.

Rob Coe has written an excellent reading list here ‘What’s worth reading for teachers interested in research?’

I also have a longlist from which I worked to create this list, if that’s of interest.

Pragmatic Education

*Ideas are the currency of the 21st century*

The Headteacher's Blog

Churchill Academy and Sixth Form

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Brain food for the thinking teacher

Excellence & Growth Schools Network

Working harder makes you smarter

Belmont Teach

...our directory of excellence

The Confident Teacher

Developing successful habits of mind, body and pedagogy.


Fascinated by leading and learning


"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Class Teaching

Finding & sharing teaching 'bright spots'

Laura McInerney

Education Writer, Researcher & Policy Nerd.


Most Influential Blog on Education in the UK

kevenbartle's Blog

I want a life that's bigger than me!

Full On Learning

Because learning is too important to be left to chance

Creative T&L

by jkfairclough


Zest for Learning... into the rainforest of teaching and school leadership

Scenes From The Battleground

Teaching in British schools

Teaching: Leading Learning

Reflections on Education: a blog by Chris Hildrew


How to implement a growth mindset culture......