Intended Learning Outcomes

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:

  1. that the intended learning outcomes of a programme are explicitly reflected in the intended learning outcomes of its constituent units
  2. that unit specifications always clearly express the means whereby each of the unit’s intended learning outcomes is to be assessed
  3. 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 were asked to collate this information and map the programme's intended learning outcomes using an ILO Mapping Document template (Office document, 15kB). An example of a completed template can be downloaded here (Office document, 18kB).

 The 2016 QAA Institutional Review confirmed that Expectation A3.2 of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education was being met, noting (among other things) that:

  • It is the responsibility of programme directors to identify the core units covering the intended learning outcomes of the programme, and therefore which units must be passed.
  • The approval process required staff proposing programmes to define and map the intended learning outcomes for their awards.
  • The role descriptors for unit and programme directors assign responsibility for both learning outcomes and alignment between unit and programme. Responsibilities in this area are clearly assigned, and supported by institutional mechanisms to record and share the information.

Writing learning outcomes

Picture of a book and a pen used for Intended Learning Outcomes webpageWhen 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 an 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:

Video: Dr Kelly Moule, Faculty Education Director, talks about using intended learning outcomes.

Please see Information on Intended Learning Outcomes (Office document, 16kB) for further information.