Identifying Learning Outcomes

Lesson plans are a road map to facilitate teaching and learning. Lesson planning is an important aspect of effective teaching because it focuses the teaching on the students; however, lesson planning can seem overwhelming and laborious. In this section, you will learn about the process of ensuring alignment during lesson planning. Throughout the course, we will build on this foundation by adding different elements to enhance your lesson planning skills.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to

  • Unpack content standards.
  • Write measurable learning objectives aligned to standards.


Backward Design

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) are often credited with the idea for lesson planning called Backward Design based on their book, Understanding by Design. Wiggins and McTighe maintain that the traditional pattern of planning for teachers resembles a “forward design” in which they consider the learning activities (what students will do), the assessments (how they will measure students), then conclude by connecting everything to learning goals and standards. Using the Backward Design approach helps teachers to align the intended student learning outcomes, to the assessment evidence, and then to the learning activities.

Tips from the Pros: Basics of Backward Design

Read Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog post about the Basics of Backward Design to see examples of where she went wrong early in her career and how to plan for success with your lessons. (Note: you can also listen to the podcast instead of reading the blog)

The first step in the lesson design process is knowing where you want your students to end up. Successful teachers are diligent in their planning efforts, specifically when it comes to articulating the results they desire for their students. In the architecture world, it is stated that form follows function. That principle means that before deciding on the shape of a new building, an architect should first understand how that building will be used. In the teaching world, successful teachers follow a similar idea in that they do not start planning their instruction until they have mapped a plan for where they are headed.

The second step of the Backward Design process requires you as the teacher to determine what form of evidence you will accept as evidence of student achievement of the learning objective. In this stage, you will either select or develop the assessment task that will provide the specific evidence you need. This step requires that you understand a variety of assessment types and their pros and cons in order to select the best format for your assessment (which will be addressed later in the course).

The last stage of the lesson design process focuses on planning the actual learning experiences. Now that we know where we want our students to end up, and ultimately do, we can effectively plan learning experiences that will prepare them to achieve our desired results. It is for this reason that backward design is considered to be a more intentional approach to lesson planning.

Tips from the Pros: A peek inside different teachers lesson planning processes

Approaches to Unpacking Content Standards

The following sections will review different methods to unpack content standards.

Backward Planning (Traditional)

Wiggins and McTighe (2005) suggest various methods to begin designing instruction, one of which is reviewing academic content standards. Content standards are typically developed to guide instructional decisions at the school level across a state or nation. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the “Oklahoma Academic Standards serve as expectations for what students should know and be able to do by the end of the school year.” The Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS) are defined across content and grade levels. Wiggins and McTighe offer a few suggestions on how to use content standards to guide your planning.

  • Look for the key nouns in the standards. (Group related standards together to better see which nouns are key.) Consider the big ideas implied by these nouns.
  • Identify the key knowledge and skill called for by the content standards or benchmarks. Infer the related ideas and understandings.
  • Ask, what essential questions flow from or point to the standard? What important arguments and inquiries relate to the standard?
  • Consider the key verbs; think of them as a blueprint for key performance assessments.
  • List the activities that will enable performance and will develop the ability to understand the big ideas. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 256)

Unpacking Grade Level Outcomes (GLO’s)

There are a variety of ways to unpack content standards. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) suggest using a template (as seen in the See It In Action: Unpacking Academic Standards video above) that focuses on identifying key questions, understandings, and facts. If your content area is more heavily focused on the demonstration of skills, or you are looking for a different approach, then one of the following suggestions might work better for you. The key to remember is that backward planning is not about a specific format or template, instead it is about clearly defining your desired outcomes and aligning your approach.

The following resources provide a similar approach to unpacking standards from a physical education perspective. The first approach narrows in on individual Grade Level Outcomes (GLO’s) and looks for key components. The approach to unpacking the standards could be adapted to work within any academic content area. Consider reviewing some of the resources below to see how the principles can help you identify desired outcomes for your learning experiences.

To review the final unpacking in detail, check out Unpacking GLO’s: Pickleball Unit.

Standards Breakdown

A third approach to breaking down your academic standards uses Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) suggestion to look for key nouns and verbs. The following steps may give you some ideas on how you might break standards down by focusing on key words and phrases.

  1. Identify any established Objectives related to your chosen topic for your unit of learning;
  2. Look for Key Words and Phrases
    1. Identify key words that define the action students should be doing. Boldface these in a particular color (ie. blue), so they stand out.
    2. Identify key phrases or words that define concepts, topics, or knowledge that students need to know. Bold-face these in a different color (ie. orange), so they stand out.
    3. Identify any secondary actions or descriptions that provide further details about how students are expected to perform the action identified earlier. Highlight these sections for easy reference.
  3. Identify what you hope students will KNOW at the end of the learning experience. Include a brief description for each of the key words/phrases identified in the previous step (2b).
  4. Describe what you want your students to be able to DO at the end of the unit. These objectives should be statements that link the action identified in the previous section (2a) with individual pieces of knowledge (2b) and secondary actions (2c).

7.RP.A.2 Standard Breakdown Video Coming Soon!

To review the final breakdown in detail, check out 7.RP.A.2 Standard Breakdown

Learning Objectives*

When planning lessons, GOALS describe the lesson’s summative outcomes (broad statements about where students will go) and the OBJECTIVES describe exactly what students will do to get there. Check out the video below (approx. 9 min) for a brief overview of how to write strong learning objectives.

As described in the video, you should consider the SMART attributes when writing objectives:


Learning objectives should be concise, well-defined statements of what students will know, understand, and be able to do at the end of the lesson. The objective should state exactly what is to be accomplished by the student and the conditions in place, such as, “Given a topic on American history”,  “Provided with a calculator and a three-minute time limit”, or “Independently, following the five-step scientific method”. Learning outcomes should be simply stated in student-centered terms. If students are aware of the intended outcome, then they know where their focus should lie. This clarity helps decrease anxiety about their ability to succeed and helps build intrinsic motivation.


Learning objectives must be quantifiable. Measurable objectives state the outcomes that can be assessed in definite and specific ways; the quality or level of performance that will be considered acceptable. The criterion can be expressed by describing the performance standard to be met, such as, “Write a descriptive paragraph that includes a topic sentence, three supporting detail sentences, and a closing sentence.” When writing mastery level, you often begin with the word “with”, then add a description, such as “90% accuracy”, “no errors”, “appropriate punctuation” or “accurate vocabulary”. Start with behavioral verbs (action verbs) that can be observed (either informally or formally) and measured. Using concrete verbs will help keep your objectives clear and concise. Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a list of such verbs and these are categorized according to the level of achievement at which students should be performing.

Blooms taxonomy pyramid

While the verbs above clearly distinguish the action that should be performed, there are verbs to avoid when writing a learning objective. The following verbs are too vague or difficult to measure: appreciate, cover, realize, be aware of, familiarize, study, become acquainted with, gain knowledge of, comprehend, know, learn, and understand.


Learning objectives should be written at the appropriate developmental level for student success. It is essential that students have the prerequisite knowledge and skills and that the lesson’s time frame supports the achievement of the objective. You can determine the appropriate level of challenge by referring to pre-assessments. Learning activities should be challenging, yet offer students a realistic chance to master the objective.


The skills or knowledge described must be appropriate for the grade level and subject area or an individual’s IEP goals. The process of setting learning objectives begins with knowing the specific standards, benchmarks, and supporting knowledge students in your school or district are required to learn. State standards (Oklahoma Academic Standards) and curriculum documents are the sources for this information. This is essential to ensure students receive the same content from teacher to teacher.


State when students should be able to demonstrate skill (“By the end of the lesson”).


Lesson planning is a critical part of becoming an effective teacher regardless of your discipline. Using models like Backward Design help teachers align their objectives, assessments, and learning experiences. The key to ensuring student success is to start with a clear end goal. Learning objectives define that goal for the teacher and the student. In the coming sections, we will look at how to use your learning goals to design your assessment tools and plan your instruction.

Summarizing Key Understandings

Peer Examples

Suggested Activities

Check out the self-guided modules from the IRIS Center of Vanderbilt University.

References & Attribution

Attribution: “Learning Objectives” section was adapted in part from GSC Lesson Planning 101 by  Deborah Kolling and Kate Shumway-Pitt, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Media Attributions

  • Blooms-Taxonomy-650×366


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Identifying Learning Outcomes Copyright © by Jason Proctor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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