Writing aims, learning outcomes and assessment criteria can seem onerous. However, it’s well worth spending time to get them as you want them. In this post, Ding’s Dr. Nicholas Houghton explains the differences between these three key pillars of learning design.

Writing aims

When you write aims, you’re letting everyone know what you hope students will get out of a course or unit. You’re setting out your aspirations for the students – you’re not describing what will be assessed. Aims are always written in the form of your hopes for the students and always begin with the verb in the infinitive, for example: ‘To provide opportunities for students to explore a range of new media’. 


Things to watch out for when writing aims

Remember that:

  • Aims are a statement of intent and an opportunity to make clear what the course ethos is. For course aims, you need to think big. What changes do really hope someone who has finished the course will have made? For example: ‘To encourage students to be self-motivated and ambitious’. 
  • A common mistake is to write aims as if they were the students’ own, rather than your aims for your students. Remember, you’re always writing your aims for your learners.

Writing learning outcomes 

Learning outcomes are very different from aims. When you’re writing learning outcomes, you are identifying the things that all students should have learned at the end of a unit and that it’s possible to assess. Well-written learning outcomes are the backbone of effective learning design. They enable you to:

  • design activities and assessments that will enable your learners to achieve the learning outcomes;- assess and evaluate their learning with confidence, and- enable both you and your learners to see the relevance of every stage of the course, module or unit.

You really want to make assessment as easy and clear to everyone as you possibly can. If you think your learning outcomes sound like ‘education speak’ then it’s because they’ve been written that way. The best ones use simple, clear language which all students and staff can readily understand. 
Before writing your learning outcomes, think hard about two things: 

  1. what do you want your students to achieve through studying on the course? And…
  2. what do they need to have learned to pass?

Things to watch out for when writing learning outcomes

  • Try to avoid jargon and obscure words. People often put long, complicated words in their learning outcomes to make them sound more impressive. But learning outcomes should be written in simple, clear language. Keep your learning outcomes as short as possible.
  • Learning outcomes always begin with a verb Each learning outcome should begin with an appropriate verb from Bloom’s Taxnomy. This is a list of ‘action’ verbs, and it ensures that learners will have to make their learning visible so you can assess it. For example, ‘Demonstrate a range of painting techniques’ is a good learning outcome. In contrast, ‘Understand a range of painting techniques’ isn’t good because you can’t assess whether someone understands something. You’ll also notice that the verbs in Bloom’s taxonomy are grouped into lower or higher levels of learning, so choose a verb that is appropriate for the level of learning you’re designing for.
  • Each learning outcome needs to identify something different and each should only identify one thing. A common error is to put two or three things together within a single learning outcome. If you find your list of learning outcomes is long, then the chances are you need to combine some of these into an overarching learning outcome. Look closely at whether two of your outcomes are in fact describing the same or a similar outcome.

More things to watch out for

  • When assessing, it’s only possible to reward something like creativity if this has been identified in a learning outcome. On the other hand, bear in mind that a learning outcome must apply to all students. Therefore, if you want creativity, all students will have to demonstrate this.
  • If you’re rewriting an existing course or module, don’t look at the existing aims, learning outcomes and assessment criteria until you’ve written your own. This ensures you review the learning experience with fresh eyes.

Writing assessment criteria 

Assessment criteria tell students and assessors how work will be assessed to show that students have learned what you’ve written in the learning outcomes. Although assessment criteria are very different from the learning outcomes, they do need to be ‘mapped’ back to the learning outcomes. This makes it clear to everyone that the assessment criteria provide what is needed to be able to assess whether the learning outcomes have been achieved. There are three types of assessment criteria: ‘Knowledge of’, ‘Understanding through’ and ‘Technical and applied skills through’.

Things to watch out for when writing assessment criteria

  • The assessment criteria aren’t the same as the ‘assessment task’, for example a brief or assignment. The actual tasks don’t need to be specified in validated course documents. On the other hand, when the tasks are written, it is essential that they present ample opportunities for students to achieve the learning outcomes be assessed using the assessment criteria.
  • Assessment criteria show what needs to be done to achieve a pass (40%). The grading descriptors then define what is needed to achieve higher marks.  

Got a question about writing learning outcomes?

The please just post it in the comments below, and the Ding team would be happy to try and answer it for you!



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