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Learning outcomes and assessment criteria

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Writing good learning outcomes

The precision and appropriateness of the learning outcomes are the keys to successful implementation and assessment of outcomes-based programmes of study. Learning outcomes specify what the student is expected to know, understand or be able to accomplish by the end of any given unit of study, therefore they form the basis for all assessment of that learning and for any quality assurance checks, benchmarking or inspection exercise carried out on the unit.

Learning outcomes should not be confused with the aims and objectives of the unit. The two are subtly different. Aims are stated in terms of what is to be taught, and what the intention is behind that teaching; learning outcomes state what the student is expected to learn and have an implication for the standard he or she is expected to attain in order to pass the unit.

For these reasons, it vitally important to ensure that the learning outcomes set for a unit are as well-constructed and clearly written as possible. When drawing up these expected outcomes, they need to be:

  1. Achievable
    The outcome must realistically set out what all students are expected to learn over the time period specified. This needs to be appropriate to the existing knowledge and abilities of students who are eligible to take this unit; and to the specified level the unit occupies within the overall programme (first year undergraduate, second year diploma, taught master's, etc.). All learning outcomes should, in principle, be achievable by all students at that level of the programme.
  2. Over-arching
    Learning outcomes do not specify areas of the curriculum but rather, the areas of general learning expected of the students. The outcomes sought are over-arching and do not match the headings or topics of a syllabus, nor should each curriculum area taught have a matching learning outcome.
  3. Unambiguous
    As far as possible, learning outcomes need to be clear, sharp and unambiguous. Each outcome specified should be capable of only one single interpretation.
  4. Understandable
    Linked to unambiguity is the requirement that learning outcomes be easily understood by all those who will be expected to use them. This group includes students, teaching and inspection staff, potential and current employers, etc. so use of technical or jargon-heavy language should be avoided and the outcomes expressed in the simplest manner possible.
  5. Important
    Every learning outcome specified should refer to a significant achievement expected of the student on completion of the unit. This may not represent an exhaustive totality of what the student has actually learned but should include all those features of importance.
  6. Assessable
    In order to determine whether learning outcomes have been achieved, they need to be capable of being assessed by a suitably qualified person, by some reasonable and manageable means, within the time-frame allowed by the programme or institution's regulations. Assessments should be designed so that all the learning outcomes are tested for all students. This often means setting more than one piece of assessed work per unit, and may require the development of different forms of assessment in order to cover all the different types of learning outcome specified.
  7. Essential
    All the learning outcomes for a unit must be achieved in order for the student to successfully complete that unit. The learning outcomes set out the minimum requirements for passing the unit. Additional 'desirable' outcomes can be specified as part of a grading scheme, allowing students to gain higher marks but these are not the learning outcomes for the unit. It is important to recognize that this approach to developing programmes separates grading of students' work from assessment of whether they have passed or failed to achieve. Learning outcomes are the baseline criteria for passing the unit.

In practical terms, a well written learning outcome will follow the following guidelines:

  • It will be expressed in a single, simple sentence
  • It will contain a verb that what the student is expected to be able to do at the end of the unit
  • It will indicate on what or with what the student will be acting; or, in the case of a skill-based outcome, the way in which that skill is to be performed
  • It will indicate what sort of performance is required of the student as evidence that the learning has been achieved
  • It will use vocabulary and concepts appropriate to the broader requirements of the programme level at which the unit is pitched.

Thus:

"By the end of this unit, the student is expected to be able to demonstrate a clear understanding of the different psychological approaches to the study of the individual within the context of management history."

This is a single, straight-forward sentence, using vocabulary appropriate to a second year undergraduate level unit, and including the following:

  • "to be able to demonstrate" = verb
  • "the different psychological approaches to the study of the individual" = what the student is acting upon
  • "a clear understanding" and "within the context of management history" = nature of the required performance