Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Devising and using learning outcomes

David Baume, Independent consultant

Introduction

Learning outcomes sometimes get a bad press, as they are seen by some as 'spoonfeeding' or 'dumbing down' the curriculum, and even, for some, 'reducing academic freedom'. And indeed there are some terrible learning outcomes in use in higher education. The bad ones are obscure, unappealing and/or trivial, and seem to have been written as an administrative requirement. They may even be (fortunately) thereafter mostly ignored. Some teachers feel that getting students to identify what they have to do to pass is a valuable skill, and leave them to it. Others tend to over simplify learning outcomes, or write ones that are very easily achievable, not at degree level.

It is far better to provide good, clear, engaging, stretching but attainable learning outcomes, together with illustrations of what they mean in practice, as tools for learning. They serve as guides to occasionally perplexed students and they are an essential component for designing courses, for teaching and for supporting student learning.

Learning outcomes help students to:
  • Be clear about what they have to do to succeed;
  • Ensure that the assignments they do throughout their studies are clearly helping them towards that distant goal;
  • Ensure that they can see how their academic and professional work is helping them to move towards that goal;
  • Ensure that they receive feedback - from tutors, peers and indeed from themselves - that shows them what progress they are making towards that goal;
  • Understand what they are doing well that they need to keep on doing, and what they need to do differently, and why. Then they will have a much clearer view of what they should achieve by the end of their studies, and a clear sense of what progress they are making.
They also help learners and teachers to work together, to the same end and to move away from the sometimes rather adversarial and sometimes confusing academic, guessing game of - "What do I have to do to pass?" "What are the clues I am picking up telling me I need to do" and so on.

Some advice for novices in designing learning outcomes

A learning outcome answers the student’s (perfectly legitimate) question “What do I have to do to pass this programme, module, assessment or assignment?”

Here’s an example, from a (hypothetical) degree in computer security:
By the end of the degree you should be able to analyse risks to computers and computer systems, and recommend, develop, implement and review the effectiveness of appropriate safeguards in a variety of contexts.
You should be able to justify your methods and conclusions by selective and critical use of relevant theories, models and procedures.

The first sentence of this programme learning outcome describes what the students will be able to do when they graduate. The second sentence emphasises the scholarly and critical approach which graduates will have demonstrated.

Of course, learning outcomes for different subjects will take different forms. It is generally easier to write good learning outcomes for vocational or professional courses. However, good learning outcomes can be written for any discipline. How?

If you’re working on the learning outcome for a programme or module, you might find it useful to start with a formula such as:
By the end of this program/module, the student will be able to do (whatever the title of the programme or module is).
You will also want to add some version of the second sentence from the example above – we are after all talking about higher education. As you work out, negotiate, and write down what you mean by a student “doing” whatever the subject of your programme or module is, you will get into the heart of what it means to be proficient in your subject, and work out how to communicate this to students. This is a profoundly academic and educational thing to be doing – a long way from just meeting an administrative requirement.

Some qualities of good learning outcomes

The overall programme learning outcome shown above has some important qualities. It is:

Active: it describes what students will need to be able do to graduate

Attractive: students – obviously, students interested in a career in computer security! – are likely to want to achieve it

Comprehensible: students will know what it means, not of course in every last technical detail, but overall

Appropriate: to the student’s goals and career plans, again of course assuming their interest in computer security

Attainable: most students should be able to meet it, with due effort on a well-planned and run course

Assessable: teachers and students can see if it has been achieved

Learning outcomes for sections of modules and for individual assignments should still have these qualities. They will simply describe smaller achievements. In a well-designed course, students will be able to see clearly how attainment of these smaller learning outcomes add up to the attainment of module and then programme outcomes.

References

For a more extensive outline of designing and using learning outcomes see http://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/publications/files/Learning_Outcomes.pdf and
http://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/publications/files/040110.36637.LoRes.pdf

See also Holistic Course Design at Leeds Metropolitan University (Belinda Cooke, Sue Smith, Pauline Fitzgerald, Catherine Coates, Justine Simpson, Steve Jones, Simon Thomson, Stephanie Jameson and Ruth Pickford) in Brown, S. (2015) Learning, Teaching and Assessment: Global Perspectives, London: Palgrave

Allan, J. (1996) ‘Learning outcomes in higher education’, Studies in Higher Education, 21(1), 93-108

Entwistle, N. J. (1992) The impact of teaching on learning outcomes in higher education: A literature review. Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom, Universities' Staff Development Unit

Race, P. (2014) (3rd edition) Making Learning Happen, Chapter 3, London: Sage