How do I write clear learning outcomes for a course?


Getting started

Orientation

  • Why are learning outcomes so important?
  • How can I write well structured learning outcomes?

Aims and learning outcomes (also known as objectives) can be specified at the level of the curriculum, a programme or a particular course.

A curriculum is an educational plan that spells out the goals or objectives to be achieved, the topics to be covered (the syllabus) and the methods of teaching, learning and assessment for any particular programme.

A programme consists of a series of planned courses, completion of which leads to the conferral of an award such as an undergraduate degree e.g. Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Pharmacy, Bachelor of Nursing, Bachelor of Health Sciences, Bachelor of Science (Biomedical Science Specialisation) or a postgraduate award such as a Master, Diploma or Certificate in Health Sciences.

A course is a planned series of instruction on a particular topic e.g. Cellular Process and Development (Medicine Programme) or Behaviour, Health and Development (Pharmacy Programme). A course may or may not be part of a programme.

The difference stating aims and outcomes in these different contexts can be found in the level of detail. For example, learning outcomes for a programme will be stated in broader terms that learning outcomes for a course. Although the level of detail will differ, common planning principles apply whether you are designing a curriculum, a programme, or a course. These principles include:

  • ensuring that the aims are clear,
  • ensuring that there are clear learning outcomes,
  • specifying appropriate teaching and learning activities;
  • providing appropriate resources and facilities; and
  • ensuring that assessments that are valid and reliable.

In this section of the hub we explain the difference between aims and outcomes with reference to a programme and a course. We then explain learning outcomes with reference to a programme and a course.  The principles that we describe will also apply at the level of a programme.

You might start by watching the video of Helen Sword talking about planning a course:

Click to view the video. (Requires Flash Player).

What is the Difference Between Aims and Learning Outcomes?

Whether you are  planning a programme or course, one of the starting points is to determine and articulate what exactly it is that you want students to learn. It is useful to distinguish between teaching aims and learning outcomes.

Aims

An aim (sometimes called a goal) usually defines what the educator is trying to achieve or what the educator is intending to do overall; an aim tells students what a programme or course is about. 

The aim of a programme is stated in very broad terms. For example, the aim of a medical programme might be stated as graduating students with the required knowledge, skills and experience to practice medicine safely and competently. The aim of a Nursing programme might be stated as providing students with comprehensive and practical training for a career in nursing.

A course aim is narrower in scope and stated aims tend to be more specific. For example the aim of a particular course in medicine or nursing might be to teach students how to practice in a culturally competent manner. The aim of a particular pharmacy course might be to teach students about the role of medicines in society and/or to teach students about pharmacy law and pharmacy ethics.

Learning outcomes

Learning outcomes (also referred to as learning objectives) are statements which describe what a student is expected to know, understand and be able to do by the end of the course. Learning outcomes specify the intended end point of engagement in a given learning activity. Learning outcomes are, therefore, written with reference to student learning.

Intended learning outcomes are derived from the subject discipline, from the required professional competencies (such as those relating to standards required from graduates in medicine, nursing or pharmacy) and from the stated attributes that a University expects its graduates to have when they graduate. The University of Auckland's generic skills are set out in the graduate profile.

The difference between writing learning outcomes for a course and a programme is one of breadth. Learning outcomes for a programme will be relatively broad. The intended learning outcomes for the medical programme provide a good example of broad outcomes. Learning outcomes at a course level are more specific. For example, the learning outcomes for ClinED 712, Curriculum and Course Design state that students will be able to "Describe the theory underpinning curriculum and course design." Learning outcomes for a particular 'lesson' will be even more specific e.g. "By the end of this lecture students will be able to name six causes of cancer in male adults."

You can visit the University of Nottingham website  for further guidelines on writing learning outcomes. 

Before you move on to the next section that covers aligning learning methods with assessment, you will need to understand how to write learning outcomes. The reason for this is that learning activities must be designed to help students to achieve the intended learning outcomes and assessments must be designed to evaluate whether students have achieved the standard of learning implicit in the learning outcomes. We have covered how to write learning outcomes in How do I plan my teaching? Please visit that section if you want some guidance on writing learning outcomes.

Action

Achieving a satisfactory performance in the Design and Planning of Courses and Programmes might be evidenced by showing  that you are able to write clear learning outcomes that are supported by appropriately chosen learning methods aligned with assessment. You may want to look at the sections on learning methods and alignment before you start an ePortfolio record to evidence your teaching activity in these areas.

  • If you're familiar with how to write learning outcomes and with the theory of alignment you might want to start an ePortfolio record to evidence your activity in this area.
  • You'll need to start you work in this area with a particular course/teaching activity; this will probably be a course/teaching activity that has presented you with some challenges e.g. students may not be grasping the necessary concepts or skills or students may be performing poorly in the assessment.

Satisfactory performance in Design and Planning of Courses and/or Programmes might also be evidenced by showing that you are responsive to student feedback and to reviews of your courses/programmes. Visit the section Evaluation of practice and continuing professional development to find out more about each of these teaching areas. Merit might be achieved through innovation in curriculum and course design and/or by membership of curriculum review committees.


Taking it further

Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching and assessing to course objectives. Paper presented at the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: New Trends and Innovations
Teaching and learning take place in a whole system which embraces classroom, departmental and institutional levels. A 'poor system' is one in which the components are not integrated and are not tuned to support high level learning. In such a system only the 'academic' students use higher-order learning processes. In a 'good system' all aspects of teaching and assessment are tuned to support high-level learning so all students are encouraged to use higher-order learning processes. Constructive alignment (CA) is such a system. It is an approach to curriculum design that optimizes the conditions for quality learning.

Bloom BS (ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook 1 - The Cognitive Domain. New York: Longman.
This book provides a taxonomy or classification of educational objectives in the cognitive domain. The book was written in order to improve communication and understanding between educators in different schools. This was to be achieved through creating a hierarchy specifying different levels of learning in the cognitive domain and through providing a set of behaviour descriptors for the different levels of learning i.e. specifying student behaviours which represent or evidence the achievement of the intended learning outcome.

Harden RM (2002) Learning Outcomes and Instructional Objectives: Is There a Difference? Medical Teacher. 24 (2), 151-5. 
This article makes a distinction between learning objectives and learning outcomes and discusses five defining features of learning outcomes. It will be useful if you want to understand the characteristics of learning outcomes.

Hussey, T and Smith, P (2008) Learning Outcomes: A Conceptual Analysis. Teaching in Higher Education. 13(1),107-115.
This paper distinguishes three kinds of learning outcome: (1) those used in individual teaching events; (2) those specified for modules or short courses; and (3) those specified for whole degree programmes. The nature of each is explored and their use in assessment and auditing is discussed.

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How do I write clear learning outcomes for a course?

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