Guide to OBE
Defining Intended Learning Outcomes [ILOs]
What are Intended Learning Outcomes?

Let us imagine this situation now: we sit down and start writing the outcome statements. What are we supposed to write? At the beginning of every semester teachers write up objectives and syllabus topics for their programmes and lessons. What have they written? Do they differ from intended learning outcomes?

To clear some confusion and answer these questions, let us distinguish some important differences between the outcome-based approach and some common 'traditional' approaches to curriculum planning.

The Distinction between Learning Outcomes and Syllabus/Content

In brief, intended learning outcomes represent achievement attained by students instead of topics to be covered, the latter being typically the purpose of a syllabus.

It is common that when teachers plan their curricula, they start by thinking about the relevant topics to teach - a task that we can call defining the syllabus, which is certainly one important curriculum planning task. Defining the syllabus is related to but NOT, by itself, specifying learning outcomes. Take a hypothetical swimming course as example: the syllabus of the course could be incorporated with contents such as 'safety guidelines', 'breathing techniques', 'body motions', and 'swimming styles', whilst the outcome of the course would be 'to swim in water effectively and safely'.

The distinction between outcomes and contents is important. The adoption of the outcome-based approach implies a change in perspective from 'content' to 'knowledge, abilities and attitudes achieved by students'.

In the outcome-based approach, the main concern is, of course, the outcomes. To elaborate, what are the desirable qualities of the graduates from your programme(s) and subject(s)? What knowledge and skills you want and expect your students to demonstrate? What level of performance should they demonstrate to be able to excel in their prospective role of entry-level professionals? For instance, for the same topic about a particular chemical product, a programme aimed at producing chemical engineers who develop the product differs from another aimed at producing marketing executives for
the product. Though students essentially need to learn the same topic, they will focus on different perspectives and will use the knowledge in different ways and different contexts. This is why the outcomes and desirable qualities are so important and therefore must be stated explicitly. For this purpose, let us look at the following two lists taken from the subject benchmark statements of Health Studies, according to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

List A

  1. the ability to make comparisons between a range of health contexts, such as individual and institutional and national and international contexts;
  2. the ability to analyse health and health issues, and health information and data that may be drawn from a wide range of disciplines;
  3. the ability to synthesise coherent arguments from a range of contesting theories relating to health and health issues;
  4. the ability to draw upon the personal and lived experience of health and illness through the skill of reflection and to make links between individual experience of health and health issues and the wider structural elements relevant to health;
  5. the ability to articulate central theoretical arguments within a variety of health studies contexts;
  6. the ability to draw on research and research methodologies to locate, review and evaluate

(Source: Health Studies, QAA, 2004)

List B

The Health Studies graduates will demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  1. health as a contested concept;
  2. the multidisciplinary nature of health studies;
  3. the central place of research activity in the development of the subject;
  4. the diverse determinants of health;
  5. the contemporary issues at the forefront of the subject;
  6. the range of realist and constructionist theories of causality relating to health;
  7. ...

(Source: Health Studies, QAA, 2004)

List B is basically a content list. Please note that even with phases such as 'acquire knowledge and understanding' added to the statements, they are still not effective outcome statements. Verbs such as 'know' and 'understand' are too vague to be good verbs for outcome statements as they fail to indicate what the students are able to perform, academically or professionally, with that knowledge. This becomes very clear when these statements are compared with those in List A.

List A contains good examples of outcome statements at the programme level. These outcome statements clearly delineate the academic abilities and performance of the students as a result of academic learning. Please note that .action verbs・ in the outcome statements are highlighted. As illustrated, using action verbs gives outcome statements a much clearer articulation of academic performance than the words 'understanding' and 'knowledge'. To elaborate, these action verbs provide indications of the appropriate level of performance, beyond simply 'knowing'.

Using Broad Outcome Statements to Capture the Desirable Qualities

Outcomes refer to the desirable qualities of our graduates. They are not, however, a long and detailed list of topics that they know. Students do learn a lot of subjects and topics. In the meantime, the learning contributes to the development of some essential qualities, such as problem solving. Starting from individual contents and particular specifications, however, will easily lead students to not seeing the wood for the trees. Outcome-based approach requires the programme leader NOT to jump into the details immediately before forming a big picture of the education provided to students. While learning a particular topic, one cannot lose sight of developing the major abilities, using the specific learning as a vehicle.

Hence for an outcome-based approach it is important to get the key areas of learning and developmental outcomes right. And usually these outcomes are broad statements describing the final quality, like problem solving, effective communication, etc. For example, the learning about the various domains in an MBA programme is expected to lead to the development of the abilities to identify and diagnose problems:

"(Identify/Diagnose problems) Ability to identify and diagnose business problems accurately and effectively across a wide range of business domains, including management practices, accounting and financial management, operations, marketing, and strategic management."

(Source: MBA Programme, St. Mary's College of California, 2004)

A teacher can usually identify such broad statements about what key intellectual abilities, knowledge, skills and attitudes are desirable in a discipline by referring to:

  • overall mission of the institution
  • expectations of the profession
  • specific aims of your programme.

The overarching outcome for PolyU graduates is explicitly defined in our role statement as to produce all-round students with professional competence. Therefore, a good set of programme outcomes should take into account both professional outcomes of the discipline and outcomes of all-round development.

Using Appropriate 'Action Verbs' in Your Outcome Statements

Outcomes imply what the student should be able to know and do and therefore outcome statements should be about how such achievement can be demonstrated - by action verbs. As for important generic abilities, we can see easily that students need to solve problems, work in teams, communicate effectively, etc.

When we come to specifying the basic knowledge to be acquired, it is very common that teachers set objectives for their teaching by stating 'understand so-and-so topic'. While .understand・ seems to fall into the action verb category, curriculum developers have long been aware that the word .understand・ is a very fussy and unhelpful verb. It is fussy because there is no explicit indication of what has to be demonstrated by students if they have indeed understood. It is unhelpful because the verb 'understand' does not articulate the level of attainment - is it being able to recap the key points or being able to apply the knowledge? Therefore, it is also important that the action verbs are at suitable levels. Here we shall explore the appropriate action verbs to indicate different levels of understanding.