Writing Learning Outcomes for Behavior Change

by Dominique Turnbow

From an instructional design perspective, well-written learning outcomes are essential for providing effective instruction and sound assessment. If our goal with information literacy instruction is to help students change their research behavior, then our outcomes need to be written so that we know how to teach new skills and assess learning that leads to behavior change. Well-written learning outcomes can help by:

  • articulating specific knowledge, skill and/or behavior that learners need to achieve;
  • facilitating summative and formative assessment; and
  • providing a guideline for evaluation.

A-B-C-D Model for writing learning outcomes

There are many ways to write learning objectives, but I have found this model to be the most useful. Let’s begin with a definition of the model.

A: Audience

Who are the learners? Learner groups could be undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, librarians, etc.

B: Behavior

What is the behavior? What do learners need to do to demonstrate that they have achieved the outcome?

C: Condition

Under what conditions do learners need to perform the behavior? What is knowledge is already “assumed”? (This is important so check out the examples below.)

D: Degree

To what degree to learners need to perform the behavior? All of the time, 80% of the time, etc.?

Example

When writing objectives using the ABCD Model, you don’t need to put them in order. In fact, it often makes more sense to write them out-of-order and then make sure all the components are there. Let’s look at some examples of learning outcomes that I’ve developed for writing program instruction.

Given a list of article databases with descriptions recommended for their course topics, students will be able to identify at least two that are relevant to their topic.

In this example, the audience is “students.” If it makes sense, you can specify the audience further by describing “undergraduate students, graduate students, students enrolled in course.” I usually go with a broad description unless there is truly a reason to specify so that I can reuse my outcome for another workshop.

The behavior (skill) we are interested in students learning is “identify relevant databases.” There are two important considerations when thinking about behavior so that you will be able to assess it:

  • The verb used to describe the knowledge/skill/behavior is observable.
  • The appropriate Condition is described (see below).

In my view, the condition is perhaps the most important piece of this model. A thoughtful description of the condition is what will guide you, the instructor, in how to teach the behavior and assess it. In this example, the condition is “given a list of article databases with descriptions.” This is a behavior that can be observed for assessment purposes. The condition specifies that the descriptions will be included which is a key factor since the behavior is to identify databases. If the condition had “with descriptions” omitted, then the behavior to “identify relevant databases” would imply that learners would need to figure out a way to know how databases were relevant. As written, the condition says that they will know this because there are descriptions. The current wording tells you that you need to assess is if the students can identify a relevant database for his/her topic given a list of databases with descriptions.

Degree is the only part of the ABCD Model that I don’t always include in my information literacy outcomes. This part works well if you are doing summative assessment by way of administering a quiz or test. You can specify that students achieve at least a certain score on a test (e.g. 80%).Most one-shot instruction benefits from including a degree statement in the objective.

Practice

Can you identify the ABC parts of the objective below?

Given an overview seven search strategies that one can use to modify a search (i.e. Boolean, limits, abstract, database subject and keywords, bibliography/cited references, times cited references, and related records), students will be able to use at least three of them to modify a search in a database of their choice for their topic.

The audience is students. The behavior is “use at least three [search strategies] to modify a search in a database.” The condition is “given an overview seven search strategies that one can use to modify a search (i.e. Boolean, limits, abstract, database subject and keywords, bibliography/cited references, times cited references, and related records).” There is no degree statement.

This outcome is another good example of the value of a condition statement. Basically, it tells you what you, the instructor, needs to do to help students achieve the behavior. You need to provide an overview of the seven search strategies. You’ll know that you’ve taught them well when students can demonstrate that they can use at least three of them to modify their search. This is good time to point out the use of the phrase at least in the outcomes. Including this phrase helps you with assessment. Does it really matter that students can use all seven search strategies by the end of the workshop? More importantly, is it even realistic to think they will need to use all seven? Probably not. It is more likely that they will use a few of the strategies. So, let them pick the most relevant ones for their search strategy and make sure they can use those effectively.

One more example of a condition statement

I really want to drive home the point that the condition statement matters, so here’s one more example of why it makes a difference:

Given an UC-eLinks window, students will be able to identify if an article they want is available from the UCSD Library electronically and/or in print, as well as identify if they need to place a Request for it.

The condition statesmen, “given an UC-eLinks window” is so important here because there are multiple ways that users can access our collections. The path you choose to teach depends on your outcomes for the workshop and in this case, I wanted students to know how to use UC-eLinks. If this outcome were written without a condition statement, the implication would be that students could identify the availability of an article any way they desired. It was important to me to make sure they knew how to use UC-eLinks so I made it the condition.

Final Thoughts

As with any new skill, writing outcomes using the ABCD Model takes practice. The good news is, once you have some well-developed outcomes, they are easy to reuse or modify for future instruction. Take some time to write some objectives using this model and let me know what you think.

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