Crafting Learning Outcomes — What Verbs Do You Use?

A few years ago my clinical colleagues and I started to jointly teach Orientation for all our clinic students. The Orientation is typically 3 days long (this semester it was only 3 half days) and is a mixture of joint classes and smaller individual clinic-focused sessions. The joint classes focus on topics that are relevant to all clinic students, such as Introduction to Client Interviewing, Cross-Cultural Lawyering, Clinic Procedures, Acting for Lawyers, Persuasion for Lawyers, Factfinding, Legal Research for Clinic and a class devoted to team-building. We also set aside time for each clinic to meet individually to discuss clinic-specific topics.

Now, we’re thinking about whether to convert the Clinic Orientation into a stand-alone, 2-credit module. To me, the process of developing a curriculum and course proposal for this new class provides an opportunity to start backwards – to incorporate some backward design techniques into the course structure and design. Backward design theory explains that while a syllabus can offer a roadmap to the schedule and assignments for a semester, it is far less useful for setting goals and assessing student outcomes. By contrast, articulating learning outcomes at the beginning of the semester enables us as educators to more effectively measure student progress and provides us with a basis of comparison. So, I decided to start this semester with an eye toward the desired outcomes. What did we want our clinic students to know and be able to do at the end of Orientation?

So, as I sat through the Orientation classes this semester, I focused on crafting a series of learning outcomes for our students. Shortly into it, I found that the most challenging part of creating learning objectives is finding the best wording. I wanted to say “understand” for each topic – students would understand the value of client-centered lawyering, for example. But I recalled an earlier post on this blog, by Barbara Glesner-Fines, in which she recommended avoiding vague verbs, such as “understand,” because they do not effectively measure achievement. Instead, we should focus on “action verbs” that clearly define our expectations for our students.

What were the right verbs for my list of learning outcomes? As students go through the curriculum, we expect them to improve and gain new skills. According to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956), there are six categories of cognitive skills that students pass through as they learn. At the basic level, students begin with knowledge skills and gradually acquire skills of comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The language we use for learning objectives should reflect students’ increased cognitive skills throughout the semester. For example, students at the beginning of the semester may be expected to “define,” “recognize,” or “state” the significance of a legal concept, showing their developing skills. By the end of the semester, they should be able to “evaluate,” “interpret,” and “investigate” the proceedings of the courtroom trial, moving into more advanced skills and knowledge.

Here are some more verbs to include based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives:

Knowledge level:

  • Define
  • Describe
  • Recall
  • Record
  • State

Comprehension level:

  • Classify
  • Compare
  • Explain
  • Identify
  • Report

Application level:

  • Apply
  • Construct
  • Summarize
  • Demonstrate
  • Solve
  • Execute

Analysis level:

  • Analyze
  • Distinguish
  • Critique
  • Diagnose
  • Debate

Synthesis level:

  • Develop
  • Plan
  • Manage
  • Organize
  • Propose

Evaluation level:

  • Appraise
  • Argue
  • Conclude
  • Measure
  • Defend
  • Integrate

Knowing that this was a set of outcomes from Orientation and that our students were at the beginning of the learning process, many of the verbs I used are closer to the top of this list than they are to the bottom. At the end of the semester, I might expect to seek outcomes toward the bottom of the Taxonomy.

Here is my draft list of learning objectives for the Villanova Law Clinic Orientation. The process of crafting learning outcomes is still relatively new to me, so I’d love to benefit from the community and hear your comments/feedback on how this list could be improved upon.

Client Interviewing:

  • Students will explain the value of and be able to plan for an initial client interview; anticipate and identify how the client might feel and think about the interview; consider impediments to an effective interview; explain the value of building trust and rapport with a client at the beginning of a lawyer-client relationship; construct a set of goals for an initial client interview from the perspective of both the client and the student/lawyer.
  • Students will plan for and conduct one or more simulations of an initial client interview.
  • Students will be exposed to the importance of cultural sensitivity and issues of difference between themselves and their clients; be able to see the world through the eyes of another and appreciate new perspectives.

Professional Formation/Becoming a Lawyer:

  • Students will be familiar with the competencies necessary to become an effective lawyer and the underlying research; consider what kind of lawyer each student would like to be; develop greater self-awareness; consider how to find happiness as a lawyer in relation to each student’s own individual strengths and virtues.
  • Students will explain the value of learning about an office’s internal operations and recall procedures, such as, where and how to store files, how to maintain files, how to mail correspondence, where to find supplies, who is responsible for different functions in an office and other relevant office matters.

Teamwork and Collaboration:

  • Students will appreciate the value of and complications that may arise from collaborating with others on a team; work on teams for various exercises.

Advocacy:

  • Students will demonstrate principles of persuasion and explain the importance of being persuasive as a lawyer; apply the factors to consider in making a persuasive argument (ethos, pathos and logos), such as understanding one’s audience and how to influence that audience’s heart and mind, building one’s professional reputation and leveraging the reputation of others, as well as the value of building a logical case.

Reflection:

  • Students will implement key understandings about learning, such as the circular process of planning, doing, reflection, with the goal of continuously reflecting upon and improving one’s work.

Diligence and Hard Work:

  • Students will hear about and see models of diligent lawyers, yet also distinguish between diligence and a healthy balance between work and pleasure and the value of levity and playfulness in a workplace

What verbs do you use in assessments and learning objectives? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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5 Responses

  1. Thank you for your post Michelle! this backward design in action is really helpful for those of trying to craft outcomes throughout the curriculum.

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  3. […] 3)  Crafting Learning Outcomes–What Verbs Do You Use? […]

  4. Thank you, Michelle, for a very helpful post. I understand why the shift from objectives to outcomes is so challenging. It forces us to shift from what we do which is within our control to what students learn which to a large extent, is outside our control. Nonetheless, I am a convert. Setting outcomes has focused my teaching and informed my assessment….even the traditional essay exam. While I still consider myself a novice, I think there is something positive in aligning outcomes, teaching and content, and assessment.

    Cindy

  5. Great post. Some good ideas for improve and gain new skills in advocacy.

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