Learning outcomes are a core component in any curriculum

When we teach, we should have a clear idea of what we want our students to learn.

DeLTA-cycle

This phase is about ensuring that your teaching practice is responsive to the context.  This is about yourself as a teacher, understanding your students, the SU environment, the national HE context, South Africa and beyond.

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Outcomes are the end goals of the learning process. They are formulated to describe the result of student learning at the end of the learning opportunities.  This is not about content but rather about the concepts and underlying principles of the field of study.

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Assessment is about how well your students achieve the intended learning outcomes. This is not about them reporting back what you have taught them, but rather about how well they demonstrate their understanding of the key concepts and underlying principles of their field of study.

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Learning is about what the students do, not about what you do as the teacher.  Your role is to design learning opportunities that engage students and enable them to access disciplinary knowledge.

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4 of 6

This is where you consider whether you have achieved what you had set out to achieve with your module.

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An Introduction to Learning Outcomes

When we teach, we should have a clear idea of what we want our students to learn. More specifically, we should be able to stipulate, topic by topic, how well each topic needs to be understood.

For this reason, it is vital that we clearly articulate our outcomes in written statements that require students to demonstrate their understanding in practice instead of simply writing about it in formal exams.

In formulating curriculum outcomes, therefore, it is necessary to clarify what levels and types of knowledge our students should demonstrate in relation to which topics, and what performances of understanding would provide us with this information.

The writing of outcomes will inform what you teach

Learning Outcomes

The DeLTA cyclical diagram shows how outcomes fit into the process.

The formulation 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 aligned, 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.

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.

The traditional way of designing modules and programmes

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.

The formulation of outcomes is fundamentally about the creation of knowledge

What are learning outcomes?

The formulation of outcomes is fundamentally about the creation of knowledge and it can be formulated for different purposes, 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.

Outcomes indicate what a lecturer sees as important

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).

The background and international influence to create and defining learning outcomes.

Background for Learning Outcomes

South Africa (SA) has been influenced by international shifts towards OBE (outcomes-based education), such as the Bologna declaration 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. In some cases, the HEQC cooperate with professional bodies to do quality assurance, as is the case in Engineering programmes, where the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) and the CHE are in a joint partnership to accredit programmes. Outcomes have to feed into the broader programme and qualification outcomes, to ensure constructive alignment, as with all outcomes.

When writing outcomes one has to keep the level descriptors of the National Qualifications Framework in mind. The National Qualifications Framework is a comprehensive system for the classification, registration, publication and articulation of quality assured national qualifications.

A level descriptor is a statement describing learning achievements at a particular level of the National Qualifications Framework. “Level” means one of the series of levels of learning achievement arranged in ascending order from one to ten according to which the NQF is organised and to which qualification types are aligned. Click here to see a diagram of the ten levels of the NQF.

The level descriptors provide a broad indication of the types of learning outcomes and assessment criteria that are appropriate to a qualification at that level. To see the level descriptors, click here.

Outcomes also need to be aligned to the generic or critical cross-field outcomes, which cut across disciplinary and subject areas. Here we can also think about the SU graduate attributes (to see them click here, and go to the SU Strategy for T&L) and the SU Teaching and Learning Policy (2018). These SU graduate attributes also need to find expression in learning outcomes and have to be addressed across modules which make up a programme or qualification, as they speak to the holistic development of the students and to the relevance of programme outcomes for the work and societal contexts into which our graduates enter.

The shift towards OBE has gone hand-in-hand with broader shifts in the field of HE and at SU:

From a lecturer-centred approach which focused more on the aims and objectives of the teacher, and is associated with students being more passive and dependent on the teacher for their learning;
to

The SU Teaching and Learning Policy of 2018 promotes a learning-centred approach to teaching that is focused on learning as a partnership, where students are seen as co-creators of knowledge and learning environments. In a learning-centred approach, teaching activities facilitate knowledge-building and actively engage students in their own learning. To this end, SU should ensure that the learning-centred approach to teaching is integrated across the institution and that sufficient, suitable resources are available to support teaching and learning.

The SU policy on Teaching and Learning Material also ensures alignment between learning material and programme outcomes, for instance in study guides.

Learning outcomes are thus a core component of any curriculum at programme and module levels. It plays a role in planning the learning, teaching and assessment process, and is a requirement for HE administration. So the purpose of learning outcomes is to express what students are expected to achieve and how they are expected to demonstrate that achievement. Outcomes are different to aims and objectives, which are forward-looking and broad statements of intent: Aim=broad; objective=specific. Aims and objectives are usually teaching focused, rather than learning focused (refer to Clarification of Terminology).

Outcomes are the end goals of the learning process and describe the result of student learning at the end of the learning opportunities. This is not about content but rather about the concepts and underlying principles of the field of study. So, outcomes start at the back end, where you want your students to be at the end of a programme or module, and they are focused on learning. Then you plan backwards – how you are going to assess it, how you are going to teach it and what you are going to teach. This process is called backwards design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005).

The SU assessment policy similarly notes that assessment practices must be aligned with learning outcomes and teaching methods to play a “key role in striving towards effective assessment”. To ensure valid assessment, a programme should be planned and developed in such a manner that students are given the appropriate opportunity to demonstrate how they achieved the stated outcomes, both specific and generic. For instance, the assessment policy reminds us that the assessment methods (such as tests, assignments, tasks, practicals, orals, etc.) should be selected on the basis of the nature of the learning outcomes that are being assessed, so that they are aligned and appropriate to the learning in the programme.

Clarification of terminology

When reading the literature or when talking to colleagues, different terminology is sometimes used. This often creates confusion as to what the differences are between aims, objectives and learning outcomes.

The distinction between these concepts is not always clear, but useful descriptions are given by Kennedy, Hyland and Ryan in their 2007 article entitled Writing and Using Learning Outcomes: A Practical Guide.

The article is available HERE.

The aim of a module or programme

The aim of a module or programme is a broad general statement of teaching intention, i.e. it indicates what the teacher intends to cover in a block of learning. Aims are usually written from the teacher’s point of view to indicate the general content and direction of the module. For example, the
aim of a module could be “to introduce students to the basic principles of atomic structure” or “to provide a general introduction to the history of Ireland in the twentieth century”.

The objective of a module or programme

The objective of a module or programme is usually a specific statement of teaching intention, i.e. it indicates one of the specific areas that the teacher intends to cover in a block of learning. For example, one of the objectives of a module could be that “students would understand the impacts and effects of behaviours and lifestyles on both the local and global environments”. (In some contexts, objectives are also referred to as goals).

Thus, the aim of a module gives the broad purpose or general teaching intention of the module, whilst the objective gives more specific information about what the teaching of the module hopes to achieve.

One of the problems caused by the use of objectives is that sometimes they are written in terms of teaching intention and other times they are written in terms of expected learning, i.e. there is confusion in the literature in terms of whether objectives belong to the teacher-centered approach or the outcome-based approach.

The great advantages of learning outcomes

One of the great advantages of learning outcomes is that they are clear statements of what the students are expected to achieve and how they are expected to reliably demonstrate that achievement. Thus, learning outcomes are more precise, easier to compose and far clearer than objectives.

From one perspective, learning outcomes can be considered as a sort of “common currency” that assists modules and programmes to be more transparent at both local and international level.

From another perspective, a learning outcome is a statement of how your students will benefit from the module. The definition mostly used states that learning outcomes are statements of what students should know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate after completion of a learning process (Kennedy et al, 2007).

Taxonomies organise educators’ expected learning outcomes into a hierarchy

Taxonomies of learning

Why organise outcomes into a hierarchy?

Taxonomies organise educators’ expected learning outcomes into a hierarchy from less to more complex and they are thus helpful when you think about the expected learning outcomes for your module or programme. The work of Benjamin Bloom (1913 – 1999) provides a useful starting point when writing outcomes. Bloom identified three domains of learning, and within each of these domains he recognised that there was an ascending order of complexity:

Bloom's three domains of learning

Bloom's three domains of learning

A systematic way of describing how a learner’s performance develops from simple to complex

Bloom’s taxonomy is thus a systematic way of describing how a learner’s performance develops from simple to complex levels in the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains of learning. His work is most advanced in the cognitive domain where he drew up a classification (or taxonomy) of thinking behaviours from the simple recall of facts, up to the processes of analysis and evaluation.

His publication Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook 1, the Cognitive Domain (1956) has become widely used throughout the world to assist in the preparation of curriculum and evaluation material. The taxonomy provides a framework in which one can build upon prior learning to develop more complex levels of understanding.

Bloom's domains, a revision of Bloom's domains and the SOLO taxonomy

Bloom’s taxonomy is thus a systematic way of describing how a learner’s performance develops from simple to complex levels in the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains of learning. His work is most advanced in the cognitive domain where he drew up a classification (or taxonomy) of thinking behaviours from the simple recall of facts, up to the processes of analysis and evaluation.

His publication Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook 1, the Cognitive Domain (1956) has become widely used throughout the world to assist in the preparation of curriculum and evaluation material. The taxonomy provides a framework in which one can build upon prior learning to develop more complex levels of understanding.

Guideline for 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):

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

EXAMPLE:
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.

Criteria for well-written outcomes

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:

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

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

S MART

Specific: Not fuzzy or vague

S M ART

Measurable: Must be able to assess if reached

SM A RT

Attainable: What is possible given infrastructure and logistics

SMA R T

Relevant: Linked to aim of programme

SMAR T

Time: Feasible within module/semester, rotation

Guidelines

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.

Potential concerns with learning outcomes

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.

Forms A and B

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 Assurance.

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