Writing aims, learning outcomes, and assessment criteria


Curriculum design expert Nicholas Houghton explains how to approach writing these core aspects of a curriculum.

Writing aims, learning outcome and assessment criteria can seem onerous. However, it’s well worth spending time to get them as you want them. Once they’re in the validated document, it’s complicated and time-consuming to make changes.

Yet you really want to make assessment as easy and clear to everyone as you possibly can. If you think they look like ‘education speak’ then it’s because they’ve been written that way. The best ones use simple, clear language which all students and staff can readily understand.

Things to watch out for when writing this part of a validation document.

Try to avoid jargon and obscure words!

If you’re writing documents for revalidation, take the opportunity to take a fresh look at the course. Don’t look at the existing aims, learning outcomes and assessment criteria until you’ve written your own.

A common mistake people make is to write aims, learning outcomes and assessment criteria that are very similar to each other. Often they only make a slight change in the wording when an aim becomes a learning outcome. However, aims should be very different from outcomes, and there can also be a different number of aims from outcomes.

Before writing any of these, think hard about two things:

  1. what do you want your students to achieve through studying on the course?
  2. what do they need to have learned?

Once you have answers to these two questions, identify what they need to have learned at the end of each unit. Remember that:

  1. what they achieve does not need to be measurable, and should feed into the aims.
  2. what they need to have learned should be used as the basis for writing learning outcomes.


Writing aims

When you write aims, you’re letting everyone know what you hope students will get out of a course or unit. Therefore, you’re not describing what will be assessed, you’re setting out your aspirations for the students. Aims are always written in the form of your hopes for the students and always begin with the verb in the infinitive, for example: ‘To provide opportunities for students to explore a range of new media’.

Things to watch out for when writing aims

Remember that aims are a statement of intent and an opportunity to make clear what the course ethos is.

For course aims, you need to think big. What changes do really hope someone who has finished the course will have made? For example: ‘To encourage students to be self-motivated and ambitious’.

A common mistake is to write aims as if they were the students’ own, rather than your aims for your students. Remember, you’re always writing your aims for your students.

More on writing aims

Writing learning outcomes

Learning outcomes are very different from aims. When you’re writing learning outcomes, you are identifying the things that all students should have learned at the end of a unit and that it’s possible to assess.

Learning outcomes always begin with a verb and the best way to write them is to look at a version of Bloom’s Taxonomy and select one that is appropriate. You’ll notice from Bloom’s taxonomy that different verbs are used to describe lower or higher levels of learning.

Things to watch out for when writing learning outcomes

Each learning outcome needs to identify something different and each should only identify one thing. A common error is to put two or three things together within a single learning outcome. If you find your list of learning outcomes is long, then the chances are you need to combine some of these into an overarching learning outcome. Look closely at whether two of your outcomes are in fact describing the same or a similar outcome.

When assessing, it’s only possible to reward something like creativity if this has been identified in a learning outcome. On the other hand, bear in mind that a learning outcome must apply to all students. Therefore, if you want creativity, all students will have to demonstrate this.

More on writing learning outcomes

Writing assessment criteria

Assessment criteria tell students and assessors how work will be assessed to show that students have learned what you’ve written in the learning outcomes. Although assessment criteria are very different from the learning outcomes, they do need to be ‘mapped’ back to the learning outcomes. This makes it clear to everyone that the assessment criteria provide what is needed to be able to assess whether the learning outcomes have been achieved. There are three types of assessment criteria: ‘Knowledge of’, ‘Understanding through’ and ‘Technical and applied skills through’.

Things to watch out for when writing assessment criteria

The assessment criteria aren’t the same as the ‘assessment task’, for example a brief or assignment. The actual tasks don’t need to be specified in validated course documents. On the other hand, when the tasks are written, it is essential that they present ample opportunities for students to achieve the learning outcomes be assessed using the assessment criteria.

Assessment criteria show what needs to be done to achieve a pass (40%). The grading descriptors then define what is needed to achieve higher marks.

More on writing assessment criteria


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