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Best Practice in Writing Learning Outcomes – Rule Number 2

Avoid over-prescription when writing outcomes at the modular or programme level – by using larger macro-outcomes in preference to a large number of very detailed micro-outcomes.

Consider the difference between the outcomes in the first box and those in the second.


• Diagnose, and devise appropriate treatment regimes for, the most common cancers.
• Identify when, and to whom, referral (for both diagnosis and treatment) is appropriate.


-Describe common diagnostic tests for malignancy.
-Describe the stages involved in carcinogenesis, specific risk factors, and possible preventive measures.
-Explain the host defences against cancer
-List the warning signs of cancer.
-Explain the local and systemic effects of cancer.
-Discuss the spread of malignant tumors by invasion, metastasis and seeding and relate them to the staging of cancer.
-Distinguish between benign and malignant tumours, and discuss the mechanisms leading to malignancy.
-Describe and differentiate between a range of malignant tumours including skin cancer, ovarian cancer, and brain cancer.
-Discuss possible treatment measures for each of the above, including radiation and chemotherapy, as well as nutrition.
-Identify appropriate diagnostic referrals.
-Evaluate different treatment measures in case studies of different cancers.
-Identify when referrals for treatment are necessary and select the most appropriate choice available.

Micro-outcomes can be very useful for students if they are given at the level of individual lectures, seminars or workshops. Similarly, they are useful when given in study or revision guides. When students first encounter module or programme guides, long lists of micro-outcomes are unhelpful.  It is much better to use a smaller number of global outcomes and let professional teachers who know their subject add in the micro-outcomes at appropriate points in the learning journey of their students.

Most importantly of all, a study in UCD
(link to
has shown that students tend to learn more effectively when confronted with imprecise (see Rule 1) macro-outcomes in documents that define what they have to do over a semester or longer.

Printable Resources

1. Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (2nd Edition) Maidenhead, UK. HRE / Open University Press.

2. Rust, C, Price, M. A. & O’Donovan, B. (2003) Improving Students’ Learning by Developing their Understanding of Assessment Criteria and Processes Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 28.2, 147 – 164.

3. Spady, W. G. (1994) An Appeal to Objective Dialogue: A Response to Schlafly and LaHaye. School Administrator, 51:30–1.

4. Spady, W. G. (1988) Organising for Results: The Basis of Authentic Restructuring and Reform. Educational Leadership, 46:4–8.

5. Rees, C. E  (2004) The Problem with Outcomes-based Curricula in Medical Education: Insights from Educational Theory Medical Education, 38: 593–598.

6. Harden, R. M. (2002) Developments in Outcome-based Education Medical Teacher, 24:117–20.

7. Hussey, T & Smith, P. (2002) The Trouble with Learning Outcomes, Active Learning in Higher Education, 3:220–233.

8. Ecclestone K (1994) Democratic Values and Purposes: The Overlooked Challenge of Competence Journal of Educational Studies 20, 2.

9. Stenhouse, L. (1986) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London, Heinemann.

10. Eraut, M. (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence  London. Falmer.

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