Beyond Definitions: Diving into the Difference Between Learning Outcomes, Objectives, & Competencies

June 8, 2023
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When developing educational content for your learners, it's crucial to have a clear understanding of the terms “learning outcomes”, “learning objectives”, and “competencies”. While they may seem similar, these terms have distinct meanings and purposes.

We’ll define these key adult learning terms in this blog and examine each of them through the lens of the following case study: You are teaching a course titled Interviewing to Win for a group of professionals in the process of a career transition. You want them to leave your course feeling confident that their interviewing skills are polished in a way that will impress the recruiter and hiring manager.

What is a Learning Outcome?

Learning outcomes refer to what learners should be able to demonstrate or accomplish by the end of a learning experience.

Learning outcomes will:
  • Focus on the overarching goals of an educational program or course.
  • Typically be broad and encompass a range of knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
  • Provide a clear vision of what learners are expected to achieve and serve as a guide for curriculum design and assessment.

Learning outcomes answer the question, "What will learners think, feel, or demonstrate as a result of this learning experience?"

Putting Learning Outcomes into Practice: For Interviewing to Win you might have a learning outcome that states, “Learners will feel confident employing the STAR (situation-task-action-result) interviewing strategy.”

What is a Learning Objective?

Learning objectives are more specific and focused statements that describe the intended learning achievements within a shorter timeframe.

Learning objectives are:
  • Derived from learning outcomes and provide a roadmap for learning and development professionals and learners to follow throughout the learning process.
  • Actionable and measurable, allowing for clear evaluation of progress and attainment.
  • Able to outline the knowledge and skills that learners should acquire within a specific lesson, unit, or module.

Learning outcomes will answer the question, "What will learners accomplish in this specific learning activity?" Consider referring to Bloom’s Taxonomy as you’re writing your learning objectives.

Putting Learning Objectives into Practice: One of your learning objectives for Interviewing to Win might be, “During this lesson, learners will explain a situation where they had to use critical thinking skills to solve a problem.”

What are Competencies?

Competencies are a broader concept that goes beyond knowledge and skills.

Competencies will:
  • Involve a combination of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that enable individuals to perform tasks effectively in real-world settings.
  • Emphasize the application of knowledge and skills in practical contexts and focus on developing well-rounded individuals who can adapt to various situations.
  • Often be defined by industry or professional standards and reflect the requirements of specific occupations or fields.

Competencies answer the question, "What abilities and qualities are essential for individuals to be successful in a particular profession?"

Putting Competencies into Practice: During the Interview to Win course, you may ask the learners, “What are the competencies of your profession that you may be asked about?” A learner who is a wellness professional may cite the five competencies of the National Wellness Institute. That learner should be prepared to answer questions about the ethics of the wellness industry.


What are the Key Differences Between Learning Outcomes, Learning Objectives, and Competencies?

  1. Scope: Learning outcomes encompass the overall goals of a course or program, while learning objectives are more specific, outlining what learners should achieve in a particular lesson or unit. Competencies are broader, covering a range of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors applicable to a specific profession or domain.
  2. Level of Detail: Learning outcomes are general and broad, focusing on the big picture. Learning objectives provide specific targets that guide teaching and assessment within a shorter timeframe. Competencies provide a comprehensive set of abilities and qualities necessary for successful performance in a specific profession or domain.
  3. Timeframe: Learning outcomes apply to the entirety of a course or program, while learning objectives pertain to shorter periods, such as lessons or units. Competencies extend beyond formal education and refer to long-term, transferable abilities required in real-world settings.

Understanding the differences between learning outcomes, learning objectives, and competencies is crucial for Learning and Development professionals, association education professionals, and the learners themselves. Learning outcomes provide a holistic view of what learners should achieve, while learning objectives offer specific targets for shorter timeframes. Competencies encompass a broader set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors necessary for success in a particular profession.

By clearly defining these terms and aligning them in educational planning, we can enhance the effectiveness of teaching, learning, and assessment, ultimately empowering learners to thrive in their chosen paths.

Has your organization examined your learning strategy lately? We're here to help! Contact us to learn more about how our Learning & Development team helps organizations provide engaging experiences for adult learners.

About the Author
Dr. Kristen Wall, MA, EdD is the Director of Learning Strategy and Fractional Chief Learning Officer at Blue Sky eLearn. She started her career in education as a junior high teacher, then worked in higher education for 15 years working primarily with online adult learners. Her work focused on the professional development of faculty, providing learning opportunities for over 800 adjunct faculty teaching 2,600 courses per year. In 2018 she decided to leave higher education and started work as a consultant, ultimately landing full-time with Blue Sky eLearn and working as the Director of Learning Strategy. She consults with clients across the association space, working in diverse fields like medicine, health care quality, insurance, oil and gas, and state government.

Kristen completed both a master’s and doctorate in Adult Learning. Her areas of interest include effective assessment of learning and using qualitative research to understand how adults apply what they have learned. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, travel, and reading detective novels.

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