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Best Practice in Writing Learning Outcomes – Rule Number 1

Ensure a proper mix of precise and imprecise outcomes.

Well-constructed learning outcomes enable students to learn more effectively and become more critical of what they have learned (refs 1-4). Badly written outcomes, on the other hand, limit both student and teacher creativity and hamper the development of critical thinking skills in students (refs 4-9). 

Good practice in writing learning outcomes begins with the ability to distinguish between the following two types of outcome:

Outcome Type 1 Examples

Outcomes which are precise when used in a given context

and

which relate to (relatively) uncontested concepts.

Describe the chemical properties and mode of action of commonly used herbicides and pesticides.

Identify the main sources international law that can be used in war crimes tribunals.

Correctly identify as medieval or post-medieval elements of the Irish archaeological record. 

Show confidence and competence in reading Middle English. 

Distinguish between benign and malignant tumours, and discuss the mechanisms leading to malignancy.

Predict the time course of drug concentrations in the body, and formulate (or design) therapeutic dosage regimes.

Convert verbal descriptions of a logic system into its equivalent truth table, Boolean expression, and digital logic circuit representations.

Solve first and second order linear differential equations. Apply differential equations to model physical processes.

Evaluate and analyse different proxy methods for reconstructing past climate and environment.

Explain how archaeologists have used evidence to understand specific aspects of the prehistoric world such as ancient technology, social organisation or economic activities. 

Outcome Type 2  Examples 

Outcomes which are imprecise because

either

they relate to situations which are unpredictable

or

they are defined by contested concepts

or

both.

Question the ways in which Irish Culture is defined.

Critically evaluate the archaeological aspects of environmental evidence relating to woodland.

Provide a detailed interpretation of bio-archaeological evidence from archaeological sites in the context what is known about landscape evolution.

Conceptualize and formulate a novel food product.

Critically appraise the extent to which agency issues and corporate governance affect corporate financing and investment decision

Explain the importance of cultural and imaginative approaches to reading the city.

Discuss the extent to which social and cultural change in Ireland is driven by the processes of globalization

A combination of these different types of outcomes is essential if individuals are to develop the tacit knowledge necessary to underpin expertise - whether professional or academic or both (ref 10). Similarly, they are all essential to the expansion of collective human knowledge and, indeed, to the ability to be able to apply that knowledge.

Rule number 1, therefore, is to ensure a proper mix of precise and imprecise outcomes. Precise outcomes should be used to define the essential knowledge and skills necessary to master a given topic or area. Imprecise outcomes should be used to prompt critical engagement with the relevant subject matter.

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References

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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