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Guide to Writing Learning Outcomes

Overview

Program and course learning outcomes are a central aspect of the University's contract with students because they specify expectations about what students will know and be able to do on the successful completion of a program or course.

The very specific focus on student achievement (rather than generalised descriptions of teaching activity or learning experiences) means that learning outcomes are structured and expressed in a particular format.

This website provides background information on the factors influencing both program and course learning outcomes and sets out the widely accepted approach for writing them.

The following summaries can also be downloaded:  Writing Program Outcomes pdfWriting Course Outcomes pdf  and  Writing Learning Outcomes for Bachelor Degrees and Honours pdf

  • Outcomes or Objectives?

    The shift in terminology from 'objectives' to 'outcomes' is indicative of a broader movement in educational practice which emphasises 'outputs' (quantitative) and 'outcomes' (qualitative) over 'inputs' (quantitative). Although inputs such as ATAR scores, funding, staff/student ratios, and teaching activity are important quality indicators in an educational context, a greater emphasis is now being placed on the results of those inputs including retention and graduation rates, graduate attributes, and rates of employment and further study. In line with this there has been a shift in terminology within the documentation of programs and courses from learning objectives (the intentions of teaching) to learning outcomes (the effects of teaching). That is, the focus has shifted from what the teacher does, to what the learner is expected to demonstrate, on the evidence of learning rather than the intentions of teaching (that may or may not lead to learning). Good examples of the differences between statements that focus on the intentions of teaching (educational aims) and the effects of teaching (learning outcomes) can be found in course (program) descriptions on the Open University website.

    Focusing learning outcomes on student achievement does not mean other kinds of outcomes are unimportant. Teacher intentions and aspirations, or experiences that students can expect to encounter, or a list of topics covered (i.e. syllabus) are valuable and should be included in other aspects of the program and course documentation provided to students.

  • Programs and their Courses

    Program learning outcomes are the blueprint for the design and development of an award through its component courses. They are developed from the complex interaction of a range of factors including university priorities, demands of the discipline, requirements of quality and accrediting agencies, and expectations of stakeholders. Since program learning outcomes can only be achieved and demonstrated through component courses, course learning outcomes and their assessment are integrally related to program learning outcomes. See Figure 1 below. Program learning outcomes are developed over the extent of the program, with the complexity of course learning outcomes and related assessment increasing incrementally throughout from year to year. See Writing Learning Outcomes for Bachelor Degrees and Honours pdf.

    Relationship between Program and Course Learning Outcomes

    Figure 1 Relationship between Program and Course Learning Outcomes

  • Meeting TEQSA Requirements

    All university programs must meet the Australian Government requirements as identified in the TEQSA Threshold Standards which describe the broad parameters for quality program design at various qualification levels as outlined in the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). Program learning outcomes include knowledge, skills, and the application of that knowledge and skills. For example, Figure 2 is the AQF Qualification Type Descriptor for the Bachelor Degree. Full details of AQF Qualification Type Descriptors can be found at: http://www.aqf.edu.au/.

    AQF specification for the Bachelor Degree (Level 7)

    Figure 2 AQF specification for the Bachelor Degree (Level 7)

    The AQF defines knowledge, skills and application as:

    Knowledge is what a graduate knows and understands. It is described in terms of depth, breadth, kinds of knowledge and complexity, as follows:
    • depth of knowledge can be general or specialised
    • breadth of knowledge can range from a single topic to multi-disciplinary area of knowledge
    • kinds of knowledge range from concrete to abstract, from segmented to cumulative
    • complexity of knowledge refers to the combination of kinds, depth and breadth of knowledge.
    Skills are what a graduate can do. Skills are described in terms of the kinds and complexity of skills and include:
    • cognitive and creative skills involving the use of intuitive, logical and critical thinking
    • technical skills involving dexterity and the use of methods, materials, tools and instruments
    • communication skills involving written, oral, literacy and numeracy skills
    • interpersonal skills and generic skills.
    Application of knowledge and skills is the context in which a graduate applies knowledge and skills. Specifically:
    • application is expressed in terms of autonomy, responsibility and accountability
    • the context may range from the predictable to the unpredictable, and the known to the unknown, while tasks may range from routine to non-routine.
  • Meeting Discipline Standards

    Programs are expected to meet the threshold learning outcomes for their disciplines which are being progressively developed nationally. Details can be found at http://disciplinestandards.pbworks.com/w/page/52657697/FrontPage.

Program Learning Outcomes

Program learning outcomes identify the minimum level that graduates must achieve to be successful in a program. In particular program learning outcomes frame what will be learned and assessed and the nature of learning activity experienced within the course.

Download the Writing Program Outcomes pdf summary.

Features of Program Learning Outcomes

Program learning outcomes identify the minimum level that students must achieve to graduate from that program. In particular, they frame what will be learned and assessed.

Program learning outcomes are shaped by the:

  • essential knowledge, skills, and the application of that knowledge and skills of the appropriate qualification descriptors of the Australian Qualifications Framework
  • University's strategic goals and priorities, including Graduate Attributes
  • requirements of the discipline through threshold learning outcomes or other subject statements
  • relevant stakeholder standards and expectations including professional and industry associations, employers, workforce planning and priorities
  • standards for professional accreditation, where applicable

Program learning outcomes have particular characteristics. They:

  • define the scope and depth of the program
  • focus on the end-point of the program
  • are framed at a high level of generalisation
  • use language that is comprehensible to students and prospective students
  • identify what 'typical' students will know and be able to do on graduation
  • are measurable, realistic and achievable within the context and timeframe
  • are realised through component courses over the extent of the program
  • are demonstrated through course assessment, particularly in final year courses, and especially through capstones.

Integrating the Range of Curriculum Requirements and Stakeholder Interests

All programs are subject to multiple (and sometimes conflicting) curriculum demands from accreditation groups, university priorities, discipline standards, etc., and no single framework meets all of these demands. A practical way to approach the task of writing program learning outcomes is to choose one of the required curriculum frameworks and to integrate the other demands/frameworks into it. Where programs are accredited it may be useful to begin with the framework provided by the accrediting group and then to incorporate the other components. Where the curriculum is not subject to accreditation, the Graduate Attributes or Threshold Learning Outcomes (where they exist) provide a valuable starting point. The final statements should meet the specifications of all required frameworks but may not include all discretionary aspects identified by stakeholders because of conflicts with required elements or other considerations. Feedback to stakeholders should include a rationale for the excluded aspects.

Minimum Standards

Because program learning outcomes identify the minimum that students need in order to be successful in the award, they must be attainable by a 'typical' student in a reasonable timeframe while engaging in supportive learning processes. Assessment rubrics make provision for a range of attainment but pass levels in the final year of the award should be tied to program learning outcomes.

Key Questions

When writing the program learning outcomes you might find it useful to keep in mind the following key questions:

  • What are the most important aspects of the discipline that your graduates need to know and do as a result of completing this program?
  • How does this compare with program learning outcomes for similar programs at other comparable universities (e.g. Go8s)?
  • What is your rationale for including the identified aspects of the discipline?
  • What is your rationale for excluding aspects of the discipline that are included in other similar awards or which are valued by stakeholders?
  • Are the program learning outcomes indicative of the expectations of a graduate at the relevant level in the Australian Qualifications Framework?
  • Do the program learning outcomes incorporate the Graduate Attributes?
  • How do the statements reference stakeholder views including accrediting bodies?
  • Which component courses provide the opportunity to demonstrate achievement of the program learning outcomes through assessment?
  • Are the statements broad enough to allow the achievement of the outcomes to be demonstrated through a variety of approaches and experiences?
  • Are the statements specific enough to determine whether minimum standards have been met?
  • Do the statements take account of the interests of the range of stakeholders (TEQSA, accrediting bodies, employers, etc.)?
  • Are the program learning outcomes expressed in terms of:
    • stem – in future tense: 'On the completion of this program the graduate will be able to: ....'
    • active verb – indicating the nature of the student activity—specifically what you want them to know, consider or do—typically expressed in verbs such as 'understand', 'synthesise', 'write', 'debate' and 'differentiate'.
    • focus – indicating the process, product or outcome of the action such as 'theories', research plan' and 'principles of ethical research'
    • condition – (optional) indicating any conditions that may apply such as '...using the appropriate referencing system', '...as identified in ..', and ...relevant to...'

Course Learning Outcomes

Course learning outcomes identify the minimum level that students must achieve to be successful in a course. In particular, they frame what will be learned and assessed and the nature of learning activity experienced within the course.

Download the Writing Course Outcomes pdf summary.

Features of Course Learning Outcomes

In what is known as constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2007), course learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and assessment relate to each other in the following way:

Figure 3 Constructive alignment

Course learning outcomes are shaped by the:

  • role the course plays in the developmental learning experiences within the program through specific knowledge, skills and the application of knowledge and skills
  • contribution the course makes to program learning outcomes, including accreditation requirements, graduate attributes, TEQSA requirements, threshold learning outcomes, etc.
  • nature of the assessment tasks and the teaching and learning activities and experiences that support students in succeeding in the assessment.

Course learning outcomes have particular characteristics. They:

  • define the scope of the course
  • use language that is comprehensible to students and prospective students before they undertake the course
  • identify what 'typical' students will know and be able to do on successful completion of the course
  • are measurable, realistic and achievable within the context and timeframe
  • are inextricably linked to the learning outcomes of programs
  • are demonstrated through assessment
  • are supported through teaching and learning activity.

Integrity of Programs through Constituent Courses

Although programs provide the broad conceptual framework of learning and teaching, programs are only experienced by both staff and students through their constituent courses. Furthermore, programs are not aggregations of loosely linked courses; rather courses are the realisation of programs. For students to experience programs that are coherent, rigorous and developmentally sound, courses need to be specifically crafted to progressively introduce discipline content and skills of developing complexity, increasing intellectual demands and greater academic independence.

A constituent course can only be understood in the context of its associated courses and, in particular, its place in the developmental sequence of learning which results in the achievement of program learning outcomes.

Course learning outcomes, therefore, cannot be developed in isolation from other courses or from the overall program. This requires mapping the various components of the curriculum and their developmental sequences across the program.

Minimum Standards

The course learning outcomes identify the minimum achievement required for success in the course. Assessment rubrics make provision for a range of attainment but pass levels should be tied to the statements. The sum of the course learning outcomes of constituent courses should be equal to the program learning outcomes. In determining the minimum level of achievement required for a course, consideration should be given to the attainment level of students entering the course as well as the level of assumed knowledge required for subsequent courses. This interlocking set of outcomes provides a progressive and systematic approach to the discipline and enhances student learning.

Key Questions

When writing course learning outcomes you might find it useful to keep in mind the following key questions:

  • Does this course have a particular function within the major (eg core, SGDE, Level I, capstone) and, if so, what expectations/constraints/opportunities does this function bring with it?
  • What is the main contribution this course makes to the major?
  • Do the course learning outcomes focus on what the student will know or do on the successful completion of the course?
  • Do the course learning outcomes accurately represent your perspective of this course?
  • Are the emphases indicated in the course learning outcomes consistent with the emphases experienced by students in the course through lectures, workshops, clinical work, etc.?
  • Do the course learning outcomes represent the overall emphases of the course as identified in the assessment?
  • Do the course learning outcomes identify the minimum requirements to pass the course?
  • How does this course contribute to the overall program learning outcomes?
  • Where does this course fit in the learning sequence of content, skills and the application of the content and skills across the program?
  • Is the course a final year/capstone that links to program learning outcomes?
  • What academic content and skills are introduced?
  • What academic skills and content are reinforced?
  • What other course outcomes impact on this course?
  • What other courses are impacted by the outcomes of this course?
  • Does the course need to demonstrate achievement of skills and content for accreditation/registration purposes?
  • Do the course learning outcomes make reference to the assessment and the teaching and learning processes?
  • Do the course learning outcomes make reference to a broad range of student outcomes beyond content, as indicted in the Graduate Attributes?
  • Are the course learning outcomes consistent with the requirements of the Australian Qualifications Framework?
  • Are the course learning outcomes expressed in terms of:
    • stem – in future tense: 'On the completion of this course students will be able to: ....'
    • active verb – indicating the nature of the student activity—specifically what you want them to know, consider or do—typically expressed in verbs such as 'understand', 'synthesise', 'write', 'debate' and 'differentiate'.
    • focus – indicating the process, product or outcome of the action such as 'theories', research plan' and 'principles of ethical research'
    • condition – (optional) indicating any conditions that may apply such as '...using the appropriate referencing system', '...as identified in ..', and ...relevant to...'

Writing Learning Outcomes

The very specific focus on student achievement has resulted in a widely accepted approach to writing learning outcomes.

Summaries can be downloaded on:  Writing Program Outcomes pdf  and  Writing Course Outcomes pdf

Effective Program and Course Learning Outcomes

Effective program and course learning outcomes use the following structure:

Stem a leading statement in the future tense, highlighting that the following actions are expected to be achieved by students by the end of the period of study
Active verb indicating specifically what you want students to know, consider or do
Focus/Object indicating the process, product or outcome of the action such as 'theories', 'research plan' and 'principles of ethical research'
Context/Condition/Qualifier (optional) indicating any conditions that may apply such as '...using the appropriate referencing system', '...as identified in...', and '...relevant to...'

Some examples of effective program learning outcomes

On successful completion of this program graduates will be able to:
...apply the major theories and research procedures to contemporary social problems.
...conduct practical or practice-based tasks in a responsible, safe and ethical manner taking proper account of risk assessment and health and safety regulations.
...use established ideas, concepts and techniques, drawn from the study of business/organisations, to analyse a wide range of work-related problems and issues.

Some examples of effective course learning outcomes

On successful completion of this course students will be able to:
...design, create and use a mechanical device which can perform a routine, specified function and that meets Australian and New Zealand standards.
...prepare and present a legal argument to support a defence based on available and valid evidence, with reference to contemporary common law precedents for a specified case study.
...review and critique a performance art work, with reference to contemporary theory of artistic criticism.

Bloom's Taxonomy

In learning outcomes statements, verbs are a critical indicator of the nature of the required student engagement. In higher education, the expectation is that students will be pursuing increasingly more complex cognitive activity and function throughout their program of study and as they progress through higher qualifications.

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) recognises this progression across the range of awards through its specifications which need to be reflected in program and course learning outcomes and assessment. The AQF specifications for all awards can be found at http://www.aqf.edu.au.

Bloom's Taxonomy provides a list of verbs with increasing levels of complexity in cognitive activity and function. These can be used to specify the nature of student learning activity.

Verbs using Bloom's Taxonomy
Knowledge recall, record, list, reproduce, arrange, memorise, define, outline, state, recognise, relate, describe, identify, show, examine, present, quote, name, duplicate, tabulate.
Comprehension restate ,discuss, clarify, locate, recognise, classify, translate, explain, express, review, interpret, select, summarise, contrast, predict, associate, estimate, extend.
Application demonstrate, schedule, operate, dramatise, apply, employ, use, practise, illustrate, choose, solve, write, calculate, complete, show, examine, modify, relate, classify, experiment.
Analysis distinguish, differentiate, investigate, categorise, appraise, inspect, test, debate, compare, contrast, question, criticise, solve, analyse, separate, order, connect, explain, calculate, relate.
Synthesis compose, assemble, organise, plan, collect, propose, construct, design, create, formulate, arrange, devise, modify, derive, develop, integrate, rearrange, substitute, invent, generalise.
Evaluation judge, score, select, evaluate, choose, rate, assess, compare, estimate, value, measure, discriminate, argue, defend, support, recommend, conclude, summarise, appraise, revise.

Application of Learning Outcomes

Although learning outcomes are written primarily for enrolled and prospective students, it is important to take into account that they are used in various ways by a number of different stakeholders including accrediting and regulating bodies, employers and industry groups, and quality assurance agencies such as TEQSA. A comprehensive range of good program learning outcomes can be found in the course (program) descriptions on the Open University website.

 

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