Guide to OBE
Defining Intended Learning Outcomes [ILOs]
Action Verbs and Levels of Performance for Outcome Statements

Good outcome statements focus on abilities and attributes that are valued by the discipline concerned and are written to reflect an appropriate level of sophistication. Generally speaking, university graduates are expected to be more sophisticated in their thinking abilities. And in this information explosion age, abilities to critically select and manage information and generate new ideas have become more important. Such qualities should be reflected in your outcome statements through the appropriate use of action verbs.


Verbs and Abilities

Since outcome statements usually depict what students can do after completing a programme, they almost invariably consist of one or more action verbs. These action verbs represent important learning goals for students as well as criteria for assessment.

Different action verbs tell you different things about a studentˇ¦s abilities. Some reflect the depth of understanding the student has attained through the learning process. For example, if a student can successfully design a product, he or she must have grasped the concepts and skills related to designing that product, thus he or she must be able to use the knowledge and skills appropriately in the creative process of design. The level of understanding of a student who can design is therefore qualitatively different from someone who has merely acquired the same concepts and skills.

In Table B below, you will find examples of demonstrable action verbs organised by the connotations commonly associated with them. The columns represent different levels of understanding and thinking involved in carrying out such actions. It should be noted that these categorisations are not absolute. It all depends on how you use the verb.

Table B: Different Verbs and their Corresponding Abilities

Let's take a closer look at the levels of understanding. They are derived from Biggs' SOLO taxonomy (1999).

Understanding at a factual level gives one the abilities to reproduce facts from memory. Students operating at this level see understanding as gaining knowledge. The focus of learning is therefore on getting more. The knowledge gained however is disconnected and disorganised. Now, what kind of outcome statements would lead to this kind of understanding? Consider the following example:

"Be able to identify the parts of a machine."

What does one need to do in order to achieve this goal? One just needs to memorise the features and perhaps names of the parts. The level of thinking and understanding involved is low.

The next level is called relational because at this level pieces of information are put together in such a way that the student sees the relationships among different information and ideas. This enables one to analyse and explain the operation of something and it is at this level that knowledge becomes functioning. Students operating at this level see the parts as relating to each other. Their focus of learning therefore does not stop at knowing about the parts but also goes on to find out the relationships between them. To engage students in such learning, you need outcome statements that require such processing of information. For example:

"Be able to analyse the structure of a machine and fix any faults as appropriate."

To achieve this outcome, students would need to put their knowledge of the parts of the machine together to form a coherent picture about the operation of the machine. They would also need to apply this understanding and relevant skills to repair the machine. Comparing this with the previous example, the quantity of factual knowledge about the machine is probably similar, but the level of understanding and coherent thinking required is somewhat higher. In other words, the two levels of understanding are qualitatively different.

Then we come to the final level, extended understanding. Understanding at this level is so thorough that there is no limit to the things one can potentially do with such understanding. Knowledge of the topic merges with the learner's personal web of knowledge and experience. The topical boundaries melt and the learner can generalise principles learnt in one situation to another appropriately to construct new knowledge and solve unforeseen problems. Students operating at this level view understanding as a generative and interpretive process. Their focus of learning is therefore to equip themselves with this capability. Outcome statements for this level of understanding and performance must offer the scope for demonstrating such potential.

"Be able to generate innovative designs for machines to fulfil new needs."

To achieve this outcome, students would need to integrate their knowledge in machinery structure and functioning, production skills and design principles and apply such understanding and relevant skills in the creative process of designing new machines with new needs in mind. Performance of this level requires deep understanding and mature intellectual and practical abilities.

More about Level of Performance/Understanding

It is quite obvious that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all standard of performance for all discipline. For instance, both business students and mathematics students need to learn statistics, but obviously not to the same depth. It is this variation that gives us the range of different disciplines. The level of performance for each skill is therefore discipline-specific and as such should be considered with the nature of the discipline in mind.

Having said that, general expectations of what a university graduate is capable of doing do exist. For example, university graduates are expected to be very knowledgeable in their specialised fields of study (often with the assumption that they can use such knowledge to do something), to possess relevant skills and reasonably sophisticated thinking abilities, and to be independent and selfmotivated learners etc. So, in writing outcome statements, we must be careful not to mislead students by giving them 'below average' targets.

It is argued that university education should at least aim at a relational level of understanding. This does not mean that learning facts are not important. It just means we probably should not stop at giving facts, but go beyond. After all, it is our mission to develop all-round students with professional competence, not bookworms.

Other Attributes

It must be acknowledged that there are attributes that cannot easily be classified into the levels mentioned earlier. They are often related to attitudes, professional ethics and other personal qualities. These attributes are important outcomes too, so some outcome statements must be written about them. In such cases, what verbs should be used?

Some of the verbs often used in such statements, displayed in Table C below, are arranged into two groups: knowledge and behaviour.

Table C: Verbs and Other Attributes

This distinction is made because knowledge of something does not necessarily lead to its associated behaviour - knowing that one should not cross a road when the traffic light is red does not mean you would stick to that rule, for example. If your programme includes such elements, you might want to include outcome statements such as:

"Graduates from this programme will be aware of the code of conduct of the profession and have demonstrated that they are able to adhere to the aforementioned code in their practical work."

The lack of directly associated action verbs is also frequently encountered in writing outcome statements of a generic nature. In such cases, appropriate adverbs and adjectives may be employed.

For example:
"is sensitive to and can react appropriately to contextual and interpersonal factors in groups and teams."
(Example from Psychology, QAA, 2002)

Verbs that Are Important but Do Not Tell You Much about Levels

generic verbs
communicate, work, undertake, make, solve, learn



Some verbs are relatively less informative about the depth of understanding. For example, the level of understanding required in solving a problem can vary greatly as the nature of the problem changes (e.g., routine vs. ill-defined problems). Such verbs are often valuable from a professional perspective and are generic and transferable in nature. Statements using such verbs will be more helpful if further information is given.

Consider the following example:
(Adapted fom Engineering benchmark, QAA, 2000)

Outcome 1
can solve routine problems as taught.

Outcome 2
can integrate knowledge of mathematics, science, information technology, design, business context and engineering practice, to solve problems, some of which are unfamiliar and require good understanding.

How do they differ in the level of understanding or performance required?

Ambiguous Verbs

ambiguous verbs
understand, know, appreciate, grasp



Some verbs are so general in their meanings that they can hardly serve the functions of a learning goal or as criteria for assessment. Understand is a typical example of this kind. We recommend against using such verbs and when they are used, elaborations should be given to the extent that the statement will retain its functions as a learning goal for students and as criteria for assessment.

The verbs mentioned in this section is not exhaustive and the division of levels and categories is not meant to be absolute and dictative. They are here to give you some basis for considering the issue of level of performance when you write your outcome statements. It is, however, always useful to consider what is involved to achieve your stated outcome from the studentsˇ¦ point of view, and compare that with what you think is the appropriate level of performance.