Curriculum Design 101: Educational Aims and Learning Outcomes for Topics
With the launch of the Educational Quality Framework, and a number of courses undergoing review and redesign, its timely to look at some of the basics of curriculum design, starting with educational aims and learning outcomes for topics.
There are a number of factors to consider when designing a topic. The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) provides national policy underpinning higher education qualifications and the standards for those qualifications. For example, graduates of a Bachelor’s degree should meet the following standards:
Table 1: AQF specification for the Bachelor Degree
|AQF level 7 criteria|
|Summary||Graduates at this level will have broad and coherent knowledge and skills for professional work and/or further learning|
|Knowledge||Graduates at this level will have broad and coherent theoretical and technical knowledge with depth in one or more disciplines or areas of practice|
|Skills||Graduates at this level will have well-developed cognitive, technical and communication skills to select and apply methods and technologies to:
· analyse and evaluate information to complete a range of activities
· analyse, generate and transmit solutions to unpredictable and sometimes complex problems
· transmit knowledge, skills and ideas to others
|Application of knowledge and skills||Graduates at this level will apply knowledge and skills to demonstrate autonomy, well-developed judgement and responsibility:
· in contexts that require self-directed work and learning
· within broad parameters to provide specialist advice and functions
(Australian Qualifications Framework Second Edition January 2013, p43)
The AQF applies at a degree (i.e. course) level, but there are often many different potential pathways through a course to completion, involving sometimes dozens of different topic options. As such, it’s vital that all topics within a course are designed to meet the AQF standards so that irrespective of a student’s personal journey through their course, they graduate from a degree that meets AQF standards. An essential part of meeting these standards lies in formulating appropriate educational aims and learning outcomes for the course and the topics therein.
What are educational aims?
These are a broad description of the general intent or outcome of the topic or course. They can also reflect a general vision, values or overall results hoped for in students completing. There is no required convention for educational aims. Sentences or bullet points can be used although some colleges or disciplines have particular conventions.
For example, a course aim might be:
“this course aims to:
- enable graduates to demonstrate critical appraisal and applied skills to enact evidence-based practice in partnership with individuals with complex behavior support needs and key stakeholders.
- prepare graduates for leadership positions in supporting interdisciplinary teams in a positive behavior support context.
A topic aim might be:
“the aim of this topic is for students to develop specialised knowledge of the assessment and management of patients in emergency care environments through the critical exploration of evidence-base principles and practices”.
Whilst the educational aim might be longer, it shouldn’t be so detailed as to almost be read as learning outcomes.
How is a learning outcome different?
According to the AQF, “learning outcomes are constructed as a taxonomy of what graduates are expected to know, understand and be able to do as a result of learning. They are expressed in terms of the dimensions of knowledge, skills and the application of knowledge and skills.” (AQF, 2013 p. 11)
This is different from a learning objective which is about the teacher’s intentions for learners (i.e. what the students will be taught). Learning outcomes indicate what the students should be able to do at the end of the topic/course and what is required of them to achieve their desired grades or credits (Popenici & Millar, 2015 p. 4).
Learning outcomes link expectations, teaching and assessment within a topic and can also help in planning by guiding considerations of teaching methods, learning activities and assessment of learning (i.e. constructive alignment).
Figure 1: Constructive alignment
A student should be able to read the learning outcomes and know exactly what they should be able to achieve at the topic/course end. As such, they should be written in a clear and concise format that can be understood by everyone, not just academic staff.
How do I write learning outcomes?
Learning outcomes have 3 parts:
- The task (what do they need to do?)
- The condition (how will they do it?)
- The standard (how well should they be able to do it?)
Learning taxonomies can be invaluable in developing your learning outcomes. Benjamin Bloom developed a hierarchical classification of behaviours important in learning, resulting in a taxonomy of verbs from simple to more complex cognitive demands. The SOLO taxonomy can also be used to guide your thinking. Not sure what SOLO is? Watch SOLO taxonomy explained using Lego.
Higher order learning outcomes are expected in higher education so higher order verbs, drawing on more complex cognitive tasks are needed in your learning outcomes. For example, we generally expect students to ‘apply’ knowledge, not just ‘understand’; ‘analyse’, not just ‘remember’ or ‘evaluate’ rather than ‘identify’. Think about your learning activities and (proposed or actual) assessments – what is it you are expecting the students to do? This will help guide formulation of your learning outcomes.
Table 2 gives a comparison between some poorly and well written learning outcomes.
Table 2: Poorly and well-constructed learning outcomes
|By completing this topic, students will be able to:|
|Know how to use library resources to support assignment writing||Critically analyse relevant literature and develop a bibliography to support chosen assignment question|
|Understand how to measure the association between a given risk factor and a disease||Define and calculate measures of association between a given risk factor and a disease|
|Demonstrate basic strategies for assessing environmental health hazards||Integrate and apply the basic strategies for assessing environmental health hazards|
|Understand the difference between different demographic groups||Compare and contrast various demographic factors to determine how privilege and power are manifested across and within them.|
|Describe clinical governance and risk management in clinical practice and explain the need for this||Analyse the impact of clinical governance on efficiency and practice standards|
Still not sure? Each college has an academic developer able to help with this process. We can come along and help individually or run a workshop for an entire course on developing learning outcomes to support constructive alignment with learning activities and assessment.
Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives: Complete edition, New York : Longman.
Biggs, J. & Collis, K. (1982). Evaluating the Quality of Learning: The SOLO Taxonomy. New York: Academic Press.
Executive Director AQF. (2013). Australian qualifications framework. 2nd. Retrieved from https://www.aqf.edu.au/
Kemp, J.E. & McBeath, R.J. (1992) in Instructing and Evaluating in Higher Education: A Guidebook for Planning Learning Outcomes. McBeath, R.J (ed). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.
Office of Teaching and Learning, 2008, Teaching and Learning at Curtin 2008, Curtin University of Technology, WA.
Popenici, S., & Millar, V. (2015). Writing learning outcomes, A practical guide for academics. In. Retrieved from www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au
Contributed by Cassandra Hood
Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT