Clear intended learning outcomes are a key component of good programme and unit planning and assessment for our students. The QAA UK Quality Code for Higher Education: Chapter B3:Learning and teaching gives clear guidance surrounding the purpose and design of learning outcomes. During the QAA Institutional Review in 2009 the University was advised to ensure (EC/10/25):
i) that the intended learning outcomes of a programme are explicitly reflected in the intended learning outcomes of its constituent units
ii) that unit specifications always clearly express the means whereby each of the unit’s intended learning outcomes is to be assessed
iii) that unit specifications, in detailing assessment criteria, consistently include, where applicable, an explanation of how the award of credit may be affected by criteria additional to marks in an examination or other formal assessment.
The Education Committee tasked the Intended Learning Outcomes Working Group to review how best the University might achieve this recommendation, and as a result of this Programme Directors have been asked to collate this information and submit with their Annual Programme Review reports by the end of January 2012. This template [Word, 14KB] should be used to submit mapped learning outcomes. An example of how this template should be used is given here [Word, 21KB].
When writing learning outcomes it is important to get the language right. Start with 'at the end of the session/course/programme a successful student will be able to...' then choose a action verb that says clearly what you expect the students to be able to do at the end of the course and the cognitive level they are expected to operate at when assessed. Remember that the learning outcome represents the threshold level for a pass. It is also important to use language that students understand.
Try to avoid expressions such as 'know', 'understand', 'appreciate', 'be familiar with', 'be aware of' as these are too vague to convey the exact nature of the outcome being sought and are difficult to assess accurately.
There are many lists of appropriate verbs available, mostly based on Benjamin Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Objectives (1956) which identified 6 levels of the 'cognitive domain', each subsuming the last:
At each level, a range of verbs are listed which can be used in learning outcomes. We have provided a few suggestions below, but there is also a selection of websites which offer versions of Bloom's taxonomy in various forms (grid, pyramid, wheel etc.) that you might find useful. You may find that in your discipline the hierarchy is not as straightforward as Bloom's model implies, but the associated verbs are still useful when writing learning outcomes.
Knowledge is the first step, but although it is a verb 'know' is not a good word for learning outcomes - it is better to think of a verb that describes what a student can DO to demonstrate their knowledge, so verbs like describe, identify, recognise, define, name, recall and list are better.
Comprehension or understanding is important, but as with 'know', 'understand' is not a very useful verb for learning outcomes as it is imprecise, better to use words like explain, summarise, discuss, recognize, report and review which will show students' understanding.
Application is at a higher level where students are able to put their knowledge and understanding to use in new situations so some relevant active verbs are: employ, illustrate, interpret, practice, solve and use.
Analysis is about understanding complex structures by the identification of parts and their relationships so learning outcomes can ask students to analyse, appraise, compare, contrast, criticize, experiment or question.
Synthesis is about putting parts together to form a new whole, which is important in constructing an argument and integrating knowledge so verbs such as construct, create, design, develop and organise can be used.
Evaluation is posited as the highest level where students can make judgements based on the value of evidence and material for a given purpose. Verbs like appraise, argue, assess and judge are relevant.
These are just a few suggestions, you can use any active verbs that are appropriate to your context, but if you want more suggestions have a look at the following selection.
1. Guide for Busy Academics: Using Learning Outcomes to Design a Course and Assess Learning
Video: Dr Kelly Moule, Faculty Education Director, talks about using intended learning outcomes.