Formulating outcomes

Earlier we indicated that outcomes are formulated using “backward design” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). This means we start with the end in mind. We can explain this using a journey metaphor. The formulated outcomes give students (and the lecturer) the end point or the destination. The journey is mapped according to the learning opportunities, which are aligned to the beacons and pit stops on route to the destination. The teaching methods we employ during the learning opportunities relate to our decisions about which transport we will use, which music we will listen to and who will be travelling with us. At the end, we will have to confirm that we have arrived at the original destination which is similar to the assessment where the students will have to demonstrate that they have reached the outcomes.

Before you start with formulating outcomes, answering the following questions in terms of your module might be helpful (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005):


What are the important concepts and principles students should learn and retain? What are some of the methods and processes they should master? What are some of the ways of thinking they need to develop?


How will I know students have mastered the knowledge and skills that is expected of them? What will I accept as evidence of progress?


What are some effective problems, activities, cases or tasks for developing students’ ability to meet these expectations?


These thoughts could then inform and become the outcomes that you formulate by writing it according to the following structure:


Determine the course of the learning opportunity
Example: After completion of the module/programme …


Then spell out the following (not necessarily in this order):

a subject (It is often recommended that a form of address in the first person is used).  Example: After completion of this module you (or the candidates / students …) will …


one or more action verbs associated with the intended cognitive process

Example: After completion of this module, you will be able to … identify, indicate, distinguish, compare, expose, evaluate, etc.


the object referring to the knowledge students are expected to acquire or construct

Example: After completion of this module, you will be able to identify a specific set of characteristics/ elaborate a specific use of a formula/, compare various things with each other/, solve a specific problem etc.


a specific framework (context) or specific circumstances

Example: After completion of this module, you will be able to perform a task within a specific context or under specific circumstances (e.g., within a specific time or utilising specific resources and/or sources, with a specific aim in mind, within a specified group context etc.)


a specific set of values and norms and/or attitudes which direct thought and action

Example: After completion of this module, you will be able to perform a specific task under specific circumstances with the critical awareness and social sensitivity that can be required of …



By the end of this workshop participants will be able to:

  1. Differentiate between beneficiary; programme institutional and systems indicators within an experiential education context.
  2. Select a template suitable for use in a programme/activity within a learning environment.
  3. Develop monitoring and evaluation indicators for a programme/activity at micro, macro and meso levels.

You can formulate as many learning outcomes as needed to clearly reflect what students will be able to demonstrate at the end of a module. It will however be beneficial for the assessment of these outcomes if you have between five and ten learning outcomes.


A well-written learning outcome is likely to:

  • Include various levels of learning and cognitive complexity;
  • Be achievable by students within the time available and at their level of learning;
  • Be assessable by some reasonable and manageable form of assessment;
  • Be assessable using a variety of assessment strategies;
  • Be communicated in a systematic way. Learning outcomes become more powerful when they are known and explicitly shared and understood;
  • Avoid verbs that are vague, unclear, or open to multiple interpretations (e.g. appreciate, understand, learn, comprehend, gain knowledge of, be aware, realize);
  • Be balanced. If the outcome is too detailed, there is a need to develop several other outcomes to ensure the breadth of learning is represented in a programme. If the outcome is too broad, it becomes difficult to demonstrate that the learning and assessment within a programme meet the outcomes.


Another set of criteria that people sometimes use is the SMART model:

According to this model, outcomes should adhere to the following criteria:


S = specific (not fuzzy or vague)
M = measurable (must be able to assess if reached)
A = attainable (what is possible given infrastructure and logistics)
R = relevant (linked to aim of programme)
T = time (feasible within module/semester, rotation)



At any level of education, some memorization of information is essential, but the mere transmission of knowledge is never an appropriate goal for a course or programme. Even in the most basic and introductory of courses, expected learning outcomes should emphasize, at least, comprehension and application of knowledge. On a post-graduate level, the outcomes should be on the higher cognitive levels (level 3 and up).


Tell your students in your learning outcomes what they will be expected to do to demonstrate that they have achieved the outcome.
If the outcome involves understanding, perhaps students will outline, explain, describe, model, or apply what they have learned in a new context. If the outcome involves critical or creative thinking, perhaps they will synthesize, evaluate, or extend what they have learned.


Ensure your learning outcomes focus not on what you as lecturer will do, but on what students will be able to do at the end of the module. A phrase such as “students will be exposed to…” is not about student outcomes.


Avoid vague terms such as know, appreciate, understand, be familiar with, or learn. Such terms could suggest that you have to think more carefully about what you want students to get out of your course.

One of the main concerns about the adoption of learning outcomes is the philosophical one that academic study should be open-ended and that learning outcomes do not fit in with this liberal view of learning (Adam, 2004) as it could be perceived as too prescriptive. This need not be the case if learning outcomes are written with a focus on higher-order thinking and application skills. However, if learning outcomes are written within a very narrow framework, this could limit learning and result in a lack of intellectual challenge to learners. There might be a danger of an assessment-driven curriculum if learning outcomes are too confined.

At Stellenbosch University we have to document our programmes and modules using Form A and Form B. Part of the completion of these documents requests the formulation of outcomes, assessment plans and module contents. The Form A information would usually be included in the yearbook and the Form B information becomes part of the module framework.


For more information about yearbook changes, new programmes and modules, contact The Centre for Academic Planning and Quality.