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The Skills Agenda

Integrating skills training and course learning outcomes

Three easy steps to selecting your course learning outcomes and integrating skills training.

BY LOLEEN BERDAHL | MAY 26 2021

The winter term is now behind you – and if you teach spring/summer, possibly most or all of the spring term as well. Congratulations! You are likely looking forward to a well-deserved break.

One thing that will make that break more restful is to do a small amount of planning now for the fall term. Some people like to get fall classes fully prepped before the end of June. Others extend prep across the summer months while others still prefer to put fall teaching out of mind until, say, late August or at least as late as their institution’s deadlines allow.

No judgment here; I am a strong believer in strategic procrastination for some tasks. But even if you prefer to delay fall term planning, I encourage you to give some high-level thought to what your fall classes will look like – and ideally, how you can easily build skills training into your class through learning outcomes.

To that end, I propose an easy and short exercise for you to complete before taking a summer break. This exercise integrates skills training into the learning outcomes for your fall course(s). Now, you may or may not already share my strong enthusiasm for learning outcomes. If you are skeptical and consider them just bureaucratic jargon, read about my own discovery of how effective and useful learning outcomes can be. But selecting learning outcomes early will help you manage overall course design and provide a simple approach to build skills training into your class from the start. And importantly, this allows you to put fall teaching out of mind while you take that well-deserved break.

There are only three steps to this, and to make it extremely easy for you, I’ve laid them out here and also created a simple worksheet to guide you through it. The whole process can take you less than 30 minutes per course. If you already have a strong existing set of learning outcomes, it will be even faster!

Step 1: identify the overarching knowledge/content areas you would like students to learn, develop, or strengthen by completing your class.

Your course content – theories, histories, approaches, foundational knowledge – should be your starting point. In each course, there are typically a small number of overarching ideas or content areas. You can see these in textbooks, for example, that divide the material into sections.

pThe number of content areas you focus your course on may depend upon the course description and level; first year courses often aim for breadth, while more senior courses often strive for greater depth. While my own practice varies, I typically aim for three or four overarching content areas as I find that most manageable in a single semester.

Step 2: identify one career relevant skill/competency you would like students to learn, develop, or strengthen by completing your class.

The inclusion of an explicit skills training learning outcome serves a few purposes. First, it signals to students that they should expect to learn the skill and to be evaluated on the skill. Second, it creates an accountability for you as the instructor to ensure that you do include skills training in your teaching and assessments.

As discussed in my last column, I recommend that you aim to teach a single skill area, and that you select a skill that comes naturally to you. Err on the side of simplicity; unless you are teaching a class explicitly dedicated to writing, it is unreasonable to expect yourself to transform students’ writing abilities in a single semester. But it is reasonable to teach students how to improve a specific aspect of their writing, such as clear argumentation. A more focused skill goal will be both achievable and rewarding for you and your students alike.

Step 3: tie your content areas and skills to verbs to create the course learning outcomes.

Now that you know your content areas and skill training focus, you are ready to craft the course learning outcomes. This involves attaching verbs to your content and skill areas to create target goals. This stage is where the fun happens, as you gain clarity on what it is exactly that you want students to get out of your course.

I suggest completing the following template:

By the completion of this course, you should be able to:

For each numbered line, insert one content area or your skills training area. Place a learning outcome verb in front of it (see verb examples below or look at the many verb lists available online). Think through the possibilities to clarify what you want students to learn, and then write this as the learning outcome. For example, imagine the content area is “causality” and the learning outcome verb is “explain.” The learning outcome could then be: “explain how social science researchers identify causal relationships.”

Difficulty LevelExamples of verbs
1. RememberingDefine, identify, list, outline
2. UnderstandingExplain, describe, summarize, discuss, interpret
3. ApplyingApply, demonstrate, show
4. AnalyzingDetermine, distinguish, classify, categorize
5. SynthesizingCombine, develop, construct, relate
6. EvaluatingAssess, compare, contrast, criticize, justify

There are two points to note about this step. First, it is extremely helpful in clarifying what you want students to learn. You might look at the draft learning outcome “explain how social science researchers identify causal relationships” and realize that your goal is instead to teach students why causality is so challenging to demonstrate. Great – change it to that.

Second, be sure to consider your learning outcomes both individually and as a group and assess these by the class level. More senior classes typically should have higher level learning outcomes, but even first-year classes can be challenged to go beyond basic recall and comprehension. Consider how you can use a mix of levels to challenge your students appropriately. To return to our example, you might decide that an understanding goal is lower than you wish for your course, and then decide to change your verb from “explain” to “justify.” This will then push you to revise your learning outcome to increase the challenge for your students, such as “justify the use of causal arguments in social science research given the challenges of demonstrating causal relationships.”

Treat the skills learning outcome the same as all the rest. Exactly what skill do you want students to learn? Is it pitched at the appropriate level? How advanced are your expectations? This ensures the skill is established and integrated into the foundation of your course alongside the content, rather than tacked on at the end.

Remember, the worksheet for you to do these three steps is right here.

What to do once your learning outcomes are drafted

These three steps will leave you with a draft set of learning outcomes, including one skills training learning outcome. With these in place, you will likely start to see exciting opportunities for your course design (particularly the assessments tied to the learning outcomes) and your teaching practice.

In addition to considering your own new ideas, you can use your draft learning outcomes to open up discussions for new ideas with colleagues and staff. In my experience, staff at university teaching and learning centres are happy to provide feedback on draft learning outcomes to both help identify points for improved clarity and suggest ideas for innovative applied learning activities and assessments.

With this foundation in place, you are well situated to complete the rest of the course design – whether that be before or after your summer break. But please do take that break. You deserve it.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

What are your draft skills training learning outcomes? When do you plan your fall courses? Please let me know by commenting below, or by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda. And if you have yet to read them, please check out my past Skills Agenda columns.

I am excited to hear from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

ABOUT LOLEEN BERDAHL
Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Dr. Berdahl’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy).
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