Writing Unit Aims and Learning Outcomes

Unit 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 a student reads a unit aim, they should obtain a clear understanding of what they can expect from the unit. When read together, the aims of each unit should enable students to construct a clear understanding of how each unit relates to the overall purpose of their course. Unit aims might read something like the following:

  • 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

Learning Outcomes

The purpose of Learning Outcomes is to describe the things that students will be able to do when they successfully complete a unit of study. Well-written Learning Outcomes also enable tutors to assess the extent to which each student has achieved these outcomes. 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.

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

  • Use the future tense: ‘by the end of this unit, students will be able to…’
  • Avoid using 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.
  • 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.

Anderson @ Krathwohl's Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing

Adapted from Anderson & Krathwohl’s Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing (2001)

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

Unit learning outcomes based on Anderson & Krathwohl's taxonomy

Examples of unit learning outcomes based on Anderson & Krathwohl’s taxonomy

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