Learning outcomes – Frequently asked questions

What is a “learning outcome”?

A learning outcome is a clear statement of what successful students will be able to do at the end of a course.  (see “Assistance in completing the course description” for some examples and for a fuller description).

Do we have to write courses in terms of learning outcomes?

The move towards writing courses in terms of learning outcomes is one of the most dominant elements of higher education policy in Europe today.  There is a clear demand from policy makers for courses to be described in terms of learning outcomes

For accreditation: The accreditation criteria for programmes and universities supplied by the Organe d´accréditation et d´assurance qualité des hautes écoles suisses (OAQ) and the French Commission des Titres d’Ingénieur (CTI) require that course are written in terms of learning outcomes; they state: “learning outcomes should be assigned to each module. These outcomes should be publicly available and clearly understandable to students and other stakeholders. The curriculum content, teaching and assessment methods should be consistent with the learning outcomes approach”… “The descriptions of different course modules should clearly indicate the knowledge, abilities and competencies students are expected to acquire, as well as the prerequisites for achieving them”.

Swiss and European policy: Writing of courses in terms of learning outcomes is also a requirement as part of the development of the European Higher Education Area (“the Bologna Process”) which, in Switzerland, is regulated by the Conférence des Recteurs des Universités Suisses (swissuniversities, formerly known as CRUS).

Is there any pedagogical value in writing courses in terms of learning outcomes?

Learning outcomes can contribute to clarifying the goals of a course for teachers, students and external stakeholders. 

Clarifying goals: While courses were traditionally described in terms of content knowledge covered, learning outcomes make clear what teachers expect students will be able to do with particular content. For example: when they learn some content material, they are expected to be able to describe it, to apply it in familiar circumstances, to apply it in unfamiliar circumstances, to critique it, and so on.  This can help students plan their learning appropriately and can help teachers chose how to teach and what to assess (for example, if a goal is to be able to “apply” a concept, then it might be taught differently than if the goal is to be able to “explain” the concept). 

Using them to support learning: Approaches to teaching which clarify for students the goals of learning have been found to be very effective. For example, John Hattie’s (2009) analyses of what is most efficient in teaching concludes that using feedback on students’ assessments to help clarify learning goals (called “assessment for learning”) have very strong, positive impacts on student learning.  Helping students to use course goals in planning, monitoring and evaluating their own learning (called “metacognitive teaching”) has also been found to have very strong, positive effects on learning.

These learning benefits will probably only be felt if the teachers actually draw upon the learning outcomes in planning and organising their teaching and assessment. Writing learning outcomes and then carrying on as before will probably not have much positive impact on learning. 

Are there pedagogical risks to writing courses in terms of learning outcomes?

Not all learning is measurable: It has been argued that a lot of what we would want to teach cannot be captured in action verbs.  These “outcomes” might include things like passion for a subject, a disposition to be rigorous and ethical, a sense of mastery or understanding of a subject, a sense of expertise and of professional judgement. If we focus only on learning that is observable, then we may neglect important but non-observable aspects of a discipline. In essence, we should not reduce what is knowable and learnable to what is measurable.

It takes valuable time:  If we write learning outcomes and do not then use them to support teaching and learning then it will seem that the time spent writing them has been wasted.   

Getting the balance right: When writing learning outcomes, we should use them in ways that maximises their utility and minimises their risks. Where possible we should use them for course planning and for communicating with students.  We should avoid assuming that everything that can be learned can also be written in the form of action verbs.  

How many learning outcomes should I write?

The answer will depend on the size of the course, but the norm has been to write beetween 8 and 12 learning outcomes for a course.

How do I write learning outcomes?

Learning outcomes should be phrased in terms of the skills, competencies and knowledge (theoretical, practical, technical, etc.) that student would master by the end of a programme or course.

Typically, learning outcomes are written as: “By the end of this course, students must be able to….” (define, build, design, organise, implement, etc.).  Other guidelines include:

  • They should be short and precise
  • They should describe students’ actions.
  • Most learning outcomes should be measurable (and often look like exam questions).

 For more detailed assistance, you can contact a Teaching Advisor from our unit.