Learning outcomes have become the ‘go-to’ building blocks of curriculum design and no programme or module is likely to be validated in the UK and many other places globally without specifying them. But they are not universally popular and working with dozens of universities over the years I have seen some truly gruesome learning outcomes.
In earlier times (when I was a student half a century ago!) what students were to learn was presented in the form of reading list: we talked about ‘reading for a degree’. Later the term ‘syllabus’ began to be used widely, outlining what was to be taught followed by a Copernican shift which decentred the tutor from the centre of learning universe, placing students at the heart instead. This built particularly on the work of Mager (1962) and other ‘instructional designers’ on preparing instructional objectives in a very structured format. Through this, and the work of Biggs (1996) advocating constructive alignment, learning outcomes became the norm through which we describe what we want students know and can do.
Stefani (2009) proposes that meaningful learning outcomes should encompass ‘a wide range of student attributes and abilities both cognitive and affective’ (p42) but too often they are stultifyingly restrictive, and inflexible when situations and contexts change. Frequently for relatively small elements of the curriculum there are far too many prescribed learning outcomes, which are very poorly expressed in polysyllabic, Latinate language, often because formats are over-restricted by Professional, Subject and Regulatory Bodies and institutional regulations, which can hamper creative responses to curriculum design. So much sometimes that people reject the concept, altogether: “Why do we no need learning outcomes anyway because we know what we want to teach them”, argued one Russell Group Dean recently. Others suggest that we are aiming to reframe the ineffable, that is to articulate in a rigid format tacit issues which are hard to describe in a manageable format.
Phil Race (2018) would suggest that we need to go beyond learning outcomes and include in curriculum descriptors:
- Learning incomes: all the things learners are bringing to the learning situation;
- Emergent learning outcomes: those we didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) predict, which may surprise and astound us!
- Intended learning outgoings: helping them link the intended learning outcomes to the wider world of future learning and employment.
One way to think about what learning outcomes could cover is to ask yourself ‘what your external peers would be shocked if they failed to see included in your programs?’ ‘What is going to be really useful to students while in the course of studying, and subsequently for employability and professional lives?’ and ‘What is going to be really useful to colleagues who teach them, by giving them confidence that they are working on the right lines?’
We are often urged to draft learning outcomes that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-constrained, but I don’t find this very useful, not least because I am not sure I can differentiate between Achievable and Realistic! So instead as my contribution to the debate, I propose putting the life-blood back into learning by using VASCULAR learning outcomes which are:
- Verifiable: Can we tell when they’ve been achieved? And can students?
- Action orientated: Do they lead to real and useful activity?
- Singular: i.e. not portmanteau outcomes combining two or more into one, making it difficult to assess if differently achieved, but readily matchable to student work produced?
- Constructively aligned? (so that there is clear alignment between aims (What do students need to be able to know and do?), what is taught/ learned, how these are assessed and evaluated);
- Understandable, i.e. using language codes that are meaningful to all stakeholders?
- Level-appropriate? Suitable and differentiable between 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year, Masters, other PG?
- Affective-inclusive, i.e. not just covering actions but capabilities in the affective domain?
- Regularly reviewed? Not just stuck in history, and always fit-for-purpose.
I would love to receive colleagues’ comments on these ideas!
Biggs, J. (1996) Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher education, 32(3), pp.347-364.
Mager, R. F. (1962) Preparing instructional objectives. Pao Alto, Calif, Fearon.
Race, P. (2018) https://phil-race.co.uk/2018/05/beyond-learning-outcomes/ (accessed March 2019)
Stefani, L. (2009) Curriculum Design and Development (in Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. eds., A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education, Enhancing academic practice, 3rd edition). London: Routledge.
Professor Sally Brown is Emerita Professor of Higher Education Diversity in Teaching and Learning at Leeds Metropolitan University and was until July 2010 PVC (Academic). She is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth and Adjunct Professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast and James Cook University (both in Queensland, Australia). Sally has worked in education for more than forty years and was, for five years, Director of Membership Services for the Institute for Learning and Teaching, prior to which she worked at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle for almost 20 years as a lecturer, educational developer and Head of Quality Enhancement.
She is a National Teaching Fellow and was awarded a £200,000 NTFS grant for three years to research Innovative Assessment at Master’s level. She is widely published, largely in the field of teaching, learning and assessment. Sally is an independent consultant and workshop facilitator who offers keynote addresses at conferences and events in the UK and internationally.