Learning Outcomes

The cyclical DeLTA diagram shows how outcomes fit into the broader process of Designing Learning, Teaching and Assessment activities, and assessment opportunities. The writing of outcomes will inform what you teach, how your students learn, and the kinds of assessments you design. The assessments will in turn give you good information about whether your students are achieving the learning outcomes. The outcomes, the teaching and learning (T&L) activities and the assessment tasks should therefore be in sync, and this is referred to as Constructive Alignment. In Constructive Alignment we start with the outcomes we intend students to learn, and then align our teaching and assessment to those outcomes.

Background

South Africa (SA) has been influenced by international shifts towards OBE (outcomes-based education), such as the Bologna declaration in Europe. (This was an attempt to standardise qualifications across European universities and to create better articulation for students who wanted to move across universities and countries in Europe). In Higher Education, the shift towards OBE is regulated by bodies such as the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC), to whom we are accountable for the accreditation of qualifications. They also quality assure and accredit the qualifications and programmes which we register to offer at SU. Part of this process of registering qualifications requires the writing of learning outcomes on which qualifications, programmes, and modules are based.

 

Why do we have to formulate learning outcomes?

The traditional way of designing modules and programmes was to start from the content of the course. Teachers decided on the content that they intended to teach, planned how to teach this content and then assessed the content. This type of approach focussed on the teacher’s input and on assessment in terms of how well the students absorbed the material taught. Course descriptions referred mainly to the content of the course that would be covered in lectures. This approach to teaching has been referred to as a teacher-centred approach. Among the criticisms of this type of approach in the literature (Gosling and Moon, 2001) is that it can be difficult to identify precisely what the student has to be able to do in order to pass the module or programme.

 

As lecturers we thus have to plan and design for student learning to take place. According to  Brown and Race (2013) the lecturer’s knowledge is just information for the student. The question is then how does information become knowledge? Information only becomes knowledge when you “do” something with it. When you describe this “doing” that the students should do – it is done in terms of outcomes. We thus communicate this “doing” through formulating outcomes. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) call this ‘backward design’. Only when we are clear about what the students should achieve at the end, can we focus on the content, teaching methods and learning opportunities likely to allow students to achieve these outcomes.

 

Learning outcomes are a core component in any curriculum at both module and programme level. It is important for you and for the students as a guide to see where you are going.

What are learning outcomes?

The formulation of outcomes is fundamentally about the creation of knowledge and it can be formulated on different levels, for example a class contact session, a module, a programme or a qualification. Outcomes would spell out what knowledge, skills and attitudes/values/habits of mind we expect our students to have as a result of their learning. When we plan a module or programme we identify certain “things” our students should learn and do. We need to tell them what these “things” are. We do this through formulating outcomes. Keep in mind these are learning outcomes and not learning activities.

 

Spady (1994:8) argued that “what and whether students learn successfully is more important than when and how they learn something.” Describing a module or programme in terms of what students will do and what they will be learning therefore provides information up front that helps to guide and direct the lecturer’s planning and the students’ learning. Outcomes indicate what a lecturer sees as important and it helps to determine what to assess during or at the end of the module or programme. Outcomes also allow students to determine whether they have learned what was intended for them to learn.

 

Upon graduation students will thus be able to answer the question “what can you do now that you have obtained your degree?” rather than “what did you do to obtain your degree?” (Purser, 2003).