Writing Unit Aims and Learning Outcomes

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

Unit Aims describe the intended purpose of teaching and learning activities in a specific unit. They should not attempt to describe what students will learn or do, rather they should attempt to answer two questions:

  • What is the purpose of this unit?
  • What is the unit trying to achieve?

When you write aims, you’re letting everyone know what you hope students will get out of a course, unit or session. 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 an insight into the theories and practices of Fashion Design
  • To provide a range of opportunities for students to develop visual communication skills
  • To enable students to practice and develop key graphic design skills
  • To provide a critical overview of the state of contemporary architecture

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.

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.

All the Learning Outcomes for a course will be listed in the Programme Specification, and each unit of study will then assess different Learning Outcomes. Some Learning Outcomes may be assessed more than once during the course, but each Learning Outcome must be assessed at least once.

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.

Learning Outcomes that attempt to assess students’ ‘understanding’ are not very effective – how can you really be sure that a student understands something? And how can you assess ‘understanding’? A better approach is to use the phrase, ‘by the end of this unit students will be able to…’ and then follow this with an appropriate verb. For example, ‘by the end of this unit students will be able to describe how theories of postmodernism have influenced the development of Graphic Design.

Useful tips for writing effective Learning Outcomes

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.

  • Avoid having too many outcomes – between 3 and 6 is usually sufficient, and these should focus on the most important things that students will learn during the unit.
  • Consider how you will assess each outcome. Are they achievable for students? How will students be able to evidence their learning? Dispose of any outcomes that are too vague.
    _
  • Make sure each outcome is distinct from the others. 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.
  • Use clear, simple language, particularly in the early stages of a course. It is important that students have a clear understanding of what you expect them to do.
  • Focus on the process as well as the product that students will produce. The outcome should describe the process that students will undertake during the unit, not simply what they will produce at the end. For example, ‘students will be able to produce an art exhibition’ is ineffective as it does not explain what students need to do to produce the exhibition. Instead, ‘students will be able to plan, promote, organise and put on an art exhibition’ explains the process that students will follow and will be easier to assess.

Setting outcomes at an appropriate level

The language that you use in your unit outcomes – and particularly the verbs – needs to be consistent with the level of study of the unit. If you’re not familiar with levels of study, they are as follows:

  • Further Education – Level 3
  • Higher Education 1st Year – Level 4
  • Higher Education 2nd Year – Level 5
  • Higher Education 3rd Year – Level 6
  • Higher Education Postgraduate – Level 7

There are no strict rules as to the language that is suitable for each level of study. However, it is important that the language reflects the progression from lower to higher thinking skills as the levels of study increase. When writing unit outcomes, it can be useful to refer to what is known as Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives which classifies different levels of cognitive ability. An updated version of Bloom’s Taxonomy has been developed by Anderson & Krathwohl (2001), and it contains useful verbs that can guide the choice of appropriate language for a particular level of study. Click the image below to enlarge, or download the taxonomy.

bloom1

Bloom’s Taxonomy for teaching, learning and assessing (adapted)

Based on the above taxonomy, here are some examples of unit learning outcomes using the verbs at each cognitive level:

bloom2

Examples of unit learning outcomes based on Bloom’s taxonomy

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