Outcomes Based Education

An interesting bit of research published by the Learning Policy Institute indicates that, while teachers continue to progress in their skill level throughout the entirety of their career, there is a particularly large jump in teacher ability in the first four years of teaching. As I think back on my own teaching career, I see that reflected in my experiences. The first few years were exciting, but I frequently felt like I was just trying stuff out to see what worked and what didn’t. It wasn’t always pretty, but what other option did I have? I had to go through the difficult work of learning to teach and that’s that.

In any case, I think my experience in trial and error does a pretty good job explaining the teacher skill jump in the first four years. No matter how much you want to skip it, it takes some time to get clarity on what sort of teacher behavior and choices actually produce desired results, and what mostly just sounds good theoretically.

Throughout that process of trial and error one framework for thinking about teaching quickly rose to the top. That was getting really clear on what I wanted students to be able to do. To ensure clarity, I am contrasting getting clear about what I wanted students to be able to do with getting really clear about what I might want students to experience, to see, to think, to feel, or to listen to. While there are certainly things I want my students to see, feel, listen to, think about, etc., I found in those initial years of teaching that the more I focused on what I wanted students to be able to do and the more I structured my class on that basis, the more I saw students engage, grow, and achieve. As an example, I remember early on that my students were not very much in the habit of supporting the statements they made in speeches with any sort of evidence. They would say whatever they thought (outlandish or reasonable) and then move on expecting to be believed with no support to their statements. Once I identified what was happening and decided that good use of evidence was definitely something I wanted students to do, it was off to the drawing board to come up with lessons that would produce that outcome. As a result student behavior changed. Of course, seeing that sort of change is very satisfying for any teacher and in my, considerable, conceit I thought that I had discovered something unique.

I was, of course, wrong. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” isn’t in Ecclesiastes for nothing. And, while this may not be true in all regards, it was definitely true in this circumstance. It turns out that there is a substantive body of education research on what is referred to as outcomes based education. I was, happily, not as original nor brilliant as I supposed, because a good body of research indicated that focusing on what a student should be able to do was working just as well for other teachers as it was working for me.

I like the definition of outcomes based education employed by William Spady in this 1994 article, “Outcome-Based Education means clearly focusing and organizing everything in an educational system around what is essential for all students to be able to do successfully at the end of their learning experiences.” While I think that organizing everything in an education system around any single theory is pretty myopic, the general idea of the definition is really great. You decide what the purpose of your class is, you distill that purpose into a list of things you want students to be able to do, and then you stack activities and lessons on top of each other until the student can do that thing.

The whole concept is centered on the idea that at least one of the things we really want out of an education is for students to be able to do things that they couldn’t previously do because being able to do those things will improve their lives and society in meaningful ways. Examples of outcomes a teacher might seek include-

  • Conduct analysis and draw meaning out of an original historical document
  • Use the quadratic formula to solve equations
  • Read and demonstrate comprehension of To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Write a five page research paper with works cited page in MLA format
  • Deliver a seven minute speech on a current event from memory with thirty minutes of preparation and employing three pieces of cited evidence
  • Use all steps of the scientific method to conduct a science project
  • Perform a pantomimed sketch
  • Create a personal budget using Microsoft Excel
  • Disassemble and reassemble a drum brake
  • Improve one’s personal record time on a mile run by 15%
  • You get the idea

Another way to think about what outcomes based education is to ask the question- if students cannot do some new thing at the end of a class that he/she could not do at the beginning of a class then what, exactly, was the point? Certainly, there are many things we may want out of a classroom. We want students to know things, to believe things, to feel things, etc., but if students cannot generally do things that they couldn’t do before the class began, then can you call a class generally successful and fulfilling its purpose?

Research indicates that thinking about education in this way is broadly successful at driving student outcomes. In this meta-analysis of outcomes based education, a survey is made of twenty two worldwide studies. The overall results indicate that outcomes based education is a very strong tool for driving student achievement. In addition, outcomes based education is rated in the category “potential to considerably accelerate student achievement” in the MetaX data set.

Why It Works

I want to point out three benefits to outcomes based education that offer explanations for the research outcomes above.

Clarity for the Teacher

Choosing what to teach and how to teach it can be a monumental task for a teacher because there are so many possible options through which to sift. Focusing on outcomes can reduce that burden. Essentially, a teacher can ask him/herself a series of simple questions which offer guidance-

  • What is the purpose of my class?
  • Which student outcomes will demonstrate to me as a teacher that my class has fulfilled its purpose?
  • What knowledge will students need to gain and which skills will they need to practice in order to achieve those outcomes?
  • Which classroom and homework activities offer the most engaging and direct route through that knowledge and those skills in order to arrive at those outcomes?

These questions can give purpose and sequence to classroom and homework activities and keep teachers from spending too much time on activities that don’t have meaningful educational outcomes . This really matters because classroom and homework time are valuable. There is never enough time for everything a teacher would like to do. So heuristics that help cut the clutter are really important.

Clarity for the Student

Outcomes based education can also help make sense of the classroom for the student. To the teacher the classroom, hopefully, always makes sense. The teacher understands the overall structure and nature of the class, where activities fit in that structure, etc. It is easy to forget that sometimes students are more like kindergartners in a play: they know what they are doing at any given moment, but they aren’t always 100% sure why. And who can blame them? They didn’t create the class.

Clearly communicating specific expected outcomes to students can help them see that overall picture. Students do better when they clearly understand what they are trying to achieve. Feedback is more meaningful to them, connecting skills together to achieve the ultimate outcome makes more sense, and it’s easier to stay motivated over a longer period of time. However, if the expected outcomes are obscure to the teacher, then they’ll be invisible to the student.

Geared for Active Learning

Finally, outcomes based education can really get teachers to focus on active learning. If the point is to get a student to be able to do a thing, then the most sensible construction of classroom activities is to get students to do that same thing in smaller bits or at more basic levels over and over until the student can put those bits together or in more advanced levels over and over, until the student can do that thing.

One of the biggest overall themes in education research is that active learning works, and focusing on outcomes facilitates active learning.

Cautions and Critiques

All of this is not to say that outcomes based education is a panacea or an automatic slam dunk for teachers (if only such things existed). In the meta-analysis on outcomes based education above some studies demonstrated really great student growth, some good student growth, a few very little, and a couple even student detriment. The conclusion of the authors is that approach really matters in outcomes based education. In other words, outcomes based education is a construct that can be done well, not a construct that is a benefit to students automatically. Some cautions to consider-

Not Everything Essential Can Be Easily Measured

One of the critiques of outcomes based education is that it focuses so heavily on things that can be easily measured and observed. It’s a fair critique. The internal growth of a student, his/her courage, curiosity, self respect, and intellectual humility don’t fit easily into neat observable outcomes. And these things really matter in a classroom. They enable students to achieve and enjoy those achievements in the long term as happy well adjusted people. So if teachers reify outcomes based education from a good construct to the whole meaning of education much will be missed.

And, as a note, I think it unlikely that anyone possessing mere human faculties has been able to entirely explain, categorize, and codify the meaning of education as a whole. This is why I try to treat all theories of education as options at the teacher’s buffet rather than as appetizer, entree, and dessert.

Beware Too Many Outcomes

One of the most important elements in curriculum development is to be reasonable and practical in how much a teacher is trying to take on. In fact, I wrote an article addressing the issue. Trying to cover too much content means that the teacher often has to rely on lecture in order to race through material and students don’t get the time or practice needed to really build skills. When considering outcomes based education, it can be easy to get carried away with all the things we want students to be able to do, which puts the teacher at a disadvantage. It also hurts clarity for the student. I love making desired outcomes clear for students because they can really focus on accomplishing that thing, they can try to incorporate feedback as they work toward it, and feel a sense of meaningful accomplishment when they finally reach the mountaintop. All of this is diluted if the student can’t keep clear track of all the things that he/she is supposed to be accomplishing. This is why I really suggest drilling down on the purpose of the class. What is the value proposition of the class? What benefits are parents and students looking for? Of all the things that you could accomplish with the class, which items will have the largest and most lasting impact on student personal growth, educational and career prospects, and life satisfaction? Getting really clear about purpose and limiting the number of outcomes sought can ensure that student and teacher don’t suffer from a deluge of things to do and keep track of.

Floors Not Ceilings

Choosing the right type of outcome can also have a large impact on how effective outcomes based education is. In general, it is better to choose student outcomes that serve as a sort of floor rather than a ceiling to the classroom. While there is great value in high expectations for students, there is a specific message sent by expected outcomes. The message is “these are the things that constitute basic competency in the classroom.” If outcomes are chosen and expressed to students that even diligent students cannot reasonably achieve, then the expectations of the class are just as likely to shut students down as they are to motivate and inspire them.

Therefore, I suggest that teachers ask themselves- outside of exceptional circumstances, what would every student be able to accomplish if they give really solid effort in both homework and class each week? In conjunction it is also important to leave plenty of room and motivation for personal excellence beyond the basic expectation in the classroom. This is why choosing expected outcomes that are super specific can be a poor choice. Expected outcomes should be an indication of what students are expected to accomplish, not an outline of what students are allowed to accomplish.

Leave Room For Adaptation

Obviously, every student is different, and no outcome can be chosen which will fit every student’s individual circumstance. This excellent article by Dr. Jennifer Hurley presents itself as an argument against outcomes based education, but I read it more like an argument against dogmatic and soulless application of outcomes based education. She points out that students can vary greatly in their abilities and knowledge base. It’s a good point. Sometimes you deal with that by making sure that outcomes are broadly attainable, other times students need adaptation based on individual circumstance. Students who deal with a learning disability, are having trouble at home, or who are dealing with significant internal challenges may need adaptation and reassurance that they are accomplishing the goals you have for them as a teacher.


Focusing on outcomes is a principle that is broad enough it allows for adaptation in all sorts of classrooms with all sorts of purposes and goals. It is flexible enough to fit the temperaments and preferences of different teachers. And it is effective enough that it is worth considering for all sorts of students. So this year, what do you want your students to be able to do?