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Learning outcomes and assessment criteria

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Outcomes-based courses and assessment criteria

The outcomes-based approach to teaching and learning is increasingly being used in higher education as the model for best practice in constructing courses and evaluating students' work. Learn more about this approach with this simple, practical guide to building your own outcomes-based programmes.

Developing outcomes-based learning programmes

The outcomes-based approach to course design is intended to make the expectations of the designer/educator more transparent to both the student and any regulatory or accrediting body. Unlike the traditional model of course design in higher education, where the lecturer would decide what to include on a syllabus, based on his or her own judgement of what was important for students to know; or on personal research or other interests; the outcomes-based approach starts with a specification of what the student will be expected to achieve by the end of the unit.

These learning outcomes may be of knowledge acquisition, mastery of skills, or development of attitude or ability. All the different outcomes expected will be specified in publicly shared statements and these will be linked in a clear way to explicit assessment criteria by which they will be measured. The programme is then written; complete with assessments designed to test the criteria, in such a way as to enable students to work towards achieving the stated outcomes.

The outcomes-based approach has been developed in conjunction with credit-based modular frameworks in which each unit carries a specified number of credits, awarded on its successful completion. In order to achieve the desired qualification, the student must amass a given number of credits, usually in stated proportions from different levels.

The Principles of Outcomes-based Course Design

  1. All learning can be expressed as demonstrable outcomes to be achieved.
  2. All units are described in terms of their learning outcomes and assessment criteria.
  3. The type and number of learning outcomes and assessment criteria form the basis for assigning a number of credits and a level to a particular unit.
  4. For this reason, no unit can be assigned to more than one level.
  5. Learning outcomes need to be clear and unambiguous.
  6. Learning outcomes set out the necessary learning, which represents the minimum requirement for a pass grade on the unit.
  7. Assessment criteria should specify how a satisfactory performance of the learning outcomes will be demonstrated.
  8. Assessment criteria should be designed to ensure that learning takes place at a level appropriate to the assigned unit level.
  9. Learning outcomes should contribute to the transparency of the overall qualification gained by enabling students, parents, prospective employers and other educational professionals to understand exactly what has been learned in order to achieve a passing grade.
  10. This will facilitate student and graduate mobility, internationally, and in a life-long learning context.

Adapted from How to Use Learning Outcomes and Assessment Criteria (David Gosling and Jenny Moon, SEEC, 2002)

A programme can be described by a specification written in terms of programme outcomes similar to the learning outcomes specified for the individual units within it. These larger outcomes are more general and they may not be specifically assessed as part of the course of study but they act as guides in establishing the ethos and direction of the programme. Where the programme aims for validation or accreditation to some larger standard, the programme specification should reflect the requirements of that standard and make reference to available benchmarks.

Image: Developing a unit