Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University
Writing Module Learning Outcomes
Addressing Common Problems Associated with Writing Module Learning Outcomes
One approach to writing learning outcomes is to recognise and understand common problems. This section takes you through an explanation of common problems associated with the writing of learning outcomes and offers examples and solutions. It also demonstrates how to critique a set of learning outcomes for common problems as a means to preparing you to write your own. You may find it useful to use the Critiquing Exercise to identify these common problems in a module before you begin work on your own learning module learning outcomes.
- Language is too vague or too specific for module level
- Use of ambiguous words and phrases
- There are too many learning outcomes
- There are too many verbs in one learning outcome
- Overuse of the same verb
- Inappropriate cognitive level
- Use of progression
- Learning outcomes are not practical
- Learning outcomes that are not or can not be assessed
This is where learning outcomes are either written at a broad level that may be more suitable at a programme level or where the language is too prescriptive describing actions of a student that may be achievable at the end of a specific lecture rather than an entire module.
Example of an outcome that is too broad
Students will be able to identify and demonstrate the dynamic nature of the environment in which marketing decisions are taken.
Example of an outcome that is too specific
Outline the functions of marketing within a financial institution.
2. Use of ambiguous words and phrases This refers to the use of vague terms like know, understand, learn, be familiar with, be exposed to, be acquainted with, be aware of, appreciate, etc.
The main problem with using these verbs/phrases is that they are not universally understood so students or another lecturer may interpret them differently.
Questions to consider:
- How can you be sure that the students know or understand?
- How can they demonstrate that they know or understand?
Example of an outcome with ambiguous words
Students will be able to understand the function, structure and components of the muscloskeletal system.
Students will be able to explain the function, structure and components of the muscloskeletal system.
- Focus on what the student will actually be able to demonstrate.
- Look at the verbs used in the relating element of the assessment as a guide.
- Use the verbs list at the back of the guidelines for alternative verbs.
It is recommended at module level to have between four and six learning outcomes.
- If you have too many outcomes you may want to consider whether some of the learning outcomes are too specific and could be combined.
- You may decide that a particular outcome is more relevant to a specific lecture than the entire module in which case you may wish to remove it.
- Use your assessment and what it is measuring to prompt you.
Too many action verbs in one learning outcome can be confusing as it may not be clear which action is the most important for the student to be required to demonstrate. In the example below, consider if the focus for this outcome is on whether students can work in groups or whether they can apply basic principles and how this outcome is, or should be, assessed.
Example of an outcome with too many verbs
Students will have worked in small groups and considered the application of basic principles to different industrial processes.
NOTE: There may be instances, where two verbs are co-dependent and consequently relevant to one learning outcome. For example:
Students will be able to recognise and solve problems relating to the basic concepts of chemical reactions.
- You may want to question whether some of the outcomes are too specific and could be combined.
- You may decide that a particular outcome is more relevant to an individual lecture than the entire module and remove it.
- Use your assessment and what it is measuring to lead you to the most relevant verb.
In some cases, particularly when finding an alternative for ambiguous words/phrases such as know, understand or be familiar with, there can be a tendency to find a solution for one learning outcome and repeat it for others.
In some disciplines such as maths and science there may be a need for repetitive use of words such as ‘solve’ or ‘calculate’ where there is no alternative required or possible.
- Ask what the learning outcome requires the student to demonstrate to ensure that what is required of the student determines the chosen verb.
- Use the verbs list in the section on Domains of Learning to choose verbs for different learning domains if you are unsure.
- When you replace a verb reconsider the domain of learning it implies to ensure you do not alter the level of learning or alignment to the assessment.
This is where there is an over use of verbs that require students to demonstrate knowledge where they may also be required to demonstrate a deeper learning such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
- Choose the verb based on the relevant domain of learning (see Domains of Learning).
- Use the verbs list in the section on Domains of Learning to select a verb relevant to the level of learning required.
This is where a learning outcome refers to improvement in learning or other phrases that imply progression. Progression is difficult to measure as the student would need to demonstrate levels of learning at varying points of time. It may be best to remove the reference to progression.
Example of progression in a learning outcome
Students will have an increased proficiency in presentation skills.
Students will be able to demonstrate a proficiency in presentation skills
This is where learning outcomes are not realisable due to constraints of time and/or resources. For example a learning outcome might demand an assessment load too great for the students or for the lecturer.
- Consider the workload and resources of both yourself and your students in relation to each learning outcome and the module learning outcomes as a set.
9. Outcomes that are not or can not be assessed
As the traditional teacher-centred approach involved writing objectives from the point of view of what the lecturer intended to deliver, some learning outcomes can address the delivery of content only and are not covered anywhere in the assessment of the module.Tips:
- Check that each learning outcome is addressed in some way by assessment.
- Check that all elements of the assessment have been included in the set of learning outcomes.