Back when I attended Immersion many moons ago, they presented me with a formula for a learning outcome: “Students will” + [verb phrase] + “in order to” + [goal]. Then we used action words from Bloom’s Taxonomy [PDF] (the higher order the better, usually) to come up with the verb phrase describing what students would be able to do, and connected that action to a compelling reason for them to know how to do that. So, for example (and not a great example), “Students will recognize key functions of a database interface in order to navigate unfamiliar databases by making educated guesses about functionality and options.”
In my own practice, two pieces of this are by far the most important. First, the formula puts the emphasis on what students learn, not on what I teach. Second, the “in order to” phrase is what I use to make sure my goals are information literacy goals rather than bibliographic instruction goals. “In order to use Boolean operators correctly” isn’t a good goal. Using Boolean is an action that may result in a goal of getting more relevant results from a variety of search interfaces, or that may help students deal with searches for concepts that don’t have standard vocabulary (very important in the humanities), but it’s not a goal in itself.
When I talk to faculty about the sessions I’m going to teach for them, I start with their goals. What are their learning goals for the course? What are their learning goals for this assignment? And then I match those to my goals for the session. That way we can prioritize what to include in the class, and we can both feel better about why we’re including those things rather than all the rest of everything we could include. And prioritizing is important because 2 goals is quite enough for a session — 3 if we’re feeling really ambitious. (Believe me, I’ve balked against that constraint HARD, but it’s absolutely true.) Whatever I can’t cover in the session, I include on a Subversive Handout.
I rarely write out formal learning outcomes, but I do keep the structure in mind all the time: students learn (not me teach), some learning action (I keep Bloom’s Taxonomy by my computer at all times), some interesting learning goal that’s directly tied to the course and the assignment. And for me, connecting the practical actions of research with the larger goals of being sophisticated scholars is what keeps me engaged and interested in instruction — what keeps me from burning out, or falling back on cookie-cutter classes. Others may have other ways of keeping themselves out of instructional ruts, but this is what does it for me.