What is a learning outcome? And why do we use them?

As an ADQE Officer I support course validations, both internally and externally, and attend Curriculum Development Approval Sub-committee (CDASC). At these events a significant amount of time is spent ensuring the course and module learning outcomes are aligned to FHEQ qualification descriptors (2014). Typically, requests for amendments to the learning outcomes are made and course teams update learning outcomes accordingly.

For some, learning outcomes are challenging, perplexing and difficult to understand…some even see learning outcomes as an administrative device. However, this is certainly not the case. Learning outcomes support and guide good learning and teaching. They clarify the course or module team’s thinking about what they are aiming to achieve, outlining what is taught and how.

So what is a learning outcome? 

The QAA UK Quality Code for HE Part A: Setting and Maintaining Academic Standards (2014) defines learning outcomes as a:

‘Statement of what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate after completion of a designated programme of study (which leads to a qualification).’

In non-quality assurance terms, learning outcomes describe what a student should be able to do to successfully complete a course of study. For example:

‘By the end of the course you should be able to… analyse risks to computers and computer systems, and recommend, develop, implement and review effectiveness of appropriate safeguards in a variety of contexts.’

Module learning outcomes are more specific, offering a short guide for students on where the module will take them. For example:

‘By the end of the module you should be able to… advise parties to a case involving the sale of land of their rights and obligations, and justify your advice by reference to relevant statutes and cases.’

What is the purpose of learning outcomes?

Learning outcomes are incredibly important as they make it clear to both students and staff the expectations for the learner’s development and how the outcomes will be assessed.

Learning outcomes are also vital as they:

  • tell students what is important;
  • enable good assessment development;
  • encourage reflection and good course design and development; and
  • drive learning.

How can I devise effective learning outcomes?

Phil Race, Making Learning Outcomes Work, argues that effective learning outcomes should answer the following eight questions:

  • Who do these outcomes belong to? Not just ‘students’, please! It’s me we’re talking about. Please refer to me as ‘you’ when explaining the learning outcomes.
  • What am I supposed to become able to do? (i.e. what evidence am I working towards providing?).
  • How is my evidence of achievement going to be assessed?
  • Why is this important? Why is it worth me putting time, energy and intellect into working on this?
  • When am I going to need to produce the necessary evidence? Along the journey of my learning, or just at the end of the journey?
  • Where is my evidence going to be assessed? In the lab? In the classroom? In the field? In the seminar? In the exam room? In the work placement?
  • So what? What happens if I don’t provide evidence of my achievement of the outcomes? What happens if I don’t achieve them? Does it matter? If it’s important enough, it should matter. Is it?
  • Wow! What’s the ‘wow’ factor about this course? Why am I doing it instead of some other course? What’s the ‘wow’ factor about how this subject is taught here? Why am I here and not somewhere else? What’s the ‘wow’ factor that this course has that isn’t anywhere else?

Do your learning outcomes answer these questions?

It would be unrealistic for every learning outcome to address all eight questions, but, at a minimum, learning outcomes should answer the ‘what’s’ and ‘how?’ in each outcome and the rest of the questions should be clear to students.

Ultimately learning outcomes should be:

  • Active – it describes what students can do.
  • Attractive – students want to achieve it.
  • Comprehensible – students know what it means.
  • Appropriate – to the student’s current goals and career plans.
  • Attainable – most students will mostly meet it, with due effort.
  • Assessable – we can see if it has been achieved.
  • Visible – in the course booklet and on the VLE.

Resources on Learning Outcomes:

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Posted in Curriculum

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