HE Policy

East Africa University Approach to Learning


Using Learning Outcomes to Design a Course and Assess Learning


It is known that HE learning comprises complex mixtures of knowledge, understanding, skills and broader capabilities that can be presented and measured. It also embodies values, attitudes and behaviour that are part of the student’s academic performance.


East Africa Univesity encouraged an HE approach which is explicit about the nature of the learning that programmes intended to promote. The university implements a learning outcomes approach in order to promote a positive learning environment.


In a HE learning environment, instructors are expected to be able to show how:


  1. The educational outcomes for a programme and learning for a course that are achieved;
  2. The appropriate assessment methods that are used to test the achievement of the intended outcomes;
  3. The criteria used to judge achievement are aligned to the intended learning outcomes.


Learning outcomes


  1. An outcome is a result or consequence of an action or process.
  2. A learning outcome is what results from a learning process.
  3. Intended learning outcomes are statements that predict what the learners will have gained as a result of learning.


From the students’ perspective, the outcomes approach communicates what they are expected to be able to do and the criteria that will be used to assess them.


Vocabulary of course design


Learning outcomes are the actual results of learning.


Goal: Broad purposes or goals which generally are achievable goals at the level of the courses.


Objectives: The specific steps which lead towards the goals.


Intended learning outcomes: What students will know and be able to do as a result of engaging in the learning process.


The Outcomes Approach to Learning


The outcomes model is based on a system where teaching and learning are aligned in a way to connect the following three components.


  1. The explicit statement of learning intent: The intended learning outcome forms the achievement to be demonstrated and measured.
  2. The process and resources: This demonstrates the resource used to enable the outcomes to be achieved and demonstrated (e.g. Curriculum, teaching and learning methods, materials, assessment, support and guidance methods);
  3. The criteria for assessing: The means is the yardsticks that have been used to assess the achievement of intended outcomes.


Learning outcomes and the theory of constructive alignment

Underlying the outcomes approach to defining, designing, promoting and assess students’ learning is a useful theory of learning known as constructive alignment (Biggs 1999). The theory connects the abstract idea of a learning outcome to the things teachers do to help students learn, and the things that students do to actually learn.


The outcomes approach requires teachers to pose and answer the following questions:


  1. What do I intend students to learn (what learning outcomes do I want them to achieve)?
  2. What teaching methods and curriculum design will I use to encourage students to behave in ways that are likely to achieve these outcomes?
  3. What assessment tasks and criteria will tell me that students have achieved the outcomes I intend?


How does it work?


Constructive alignment starts with the notion that the learner constructs his or her own learning through relevant learning activities (where students’ learning is concerned – what the student does is more important than what the teacher does). The teacher’s job is to create a learning environment that supports the learning activities appropriate to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The key is that all components in the teaching system –  the curriculum and its intended learning outcomes, the teaching methods used, the resources to support learning, and the assessment tasks and criteria for evaluating learning – are aligned to each other and facilitate the achievement of the intended learning outcomes.


The main steps in the alignment process are:

1    Defining the intended learning outcomes (which determine the teaching and curriculum objectives – the steps we take to achieve the learning outcomes.)

2    Choosing teaching or learning activities likely to lead to, help and encourage students to attain these intended learning outcomes.

3    Engaging students in these learning activities through the teaching process.

4    Assessing what students have learned using methods that enable students to demonstrate the intended learning and, in the case of formative assessment, giving feedback to help students improve their learning.

5    Evaluating/judging how well students match learning intentions: a process that is guided through explicit and manageable criteria.

6    Awarding marks/grades in line with these judgments.


The assessment question is how well the learning outcomes match the desired outcomes.


Types of learning


Learning outcomes are often presented in terms of different types or categories of learning. Institutions and subjects (in their benchmarking statements) are developing their own frameworks for describing learning. Typically, they include the following categories:


  1. Knowledge
  2. Understanding Skills described as: Cognitive skills, Subject specific skills (including practical/professional skills), Transferable skills, Employability skills
  3. Capabilities
  4. Values (others often link values with attitudes)
  5. Personal development
  6. Progression to employment and/or further study


Writing learning outcomes


The best learning outcomes are descriptions of what the student will be able to do as a result of studying the course or module. They can be tested for effectiveness with the question: “and how would this be assessed?” If a clear assessment emerges, with straightforward differences between poor and excellent standards, then you have probably got a useable learning outcome.


Intended learning outcomes:


  • Normally written in the future tense;
  • Identify the most important learning requirements (don’t try to do too much – keep the number of learning outcomes to a manageable number typically 4 to 6 for a module);
  • Be achievable and assessable;
  • Use language which students can understand;
  • Relate to explicit criteria for assessing levels of achievement.


Learning outcomes are at their most useful when they focus on describing what students can do. This outcomes method is useful because it defines the design and assessment so students, examiners and evaluators will know what is going on.


Verbs that reflect different levels of understanding


Biggs (1999, 2003) suggests that certain verbs reflect different levels of understanding. Each discipline has its own verbs as well and each verb has a topic object or context:


  1. Minimal understanding, sufficient to deal with terminology, basic facts: Memorize, identify, recognize
  2. Descriptive understanding, knowing about several topics: Classify, describe, list.
  3. Integrative understanding, relating facts together and understanding basic theory: apply to known contexts, integrate, analyse, explain the aetiology.
  1. Extended understanding, being able to go beyond what has been taught, deal creatively with new situations: Apply to novel contexts, hypothesize, reflect, generate.


Last modified: December 2016.