How to make intended learning outcomes useful

Photo credit: Gaelle Marcel Unsplash, CC0

In this extra post, Velda McCune, Deputy Director of the Institute for Academic Development and Head of the Learning and Teaching Team, shares reflections on how to make the process of writing intended learning outcomes (ILOs) valuable for both staff and students…

Setting intended learning outcomes (ILOs) is one of the key aspects of developing a course proposal in this University but I know colleagues have different perspectives on whether or not this is a useful process. While many find it valuable to create clear statements of what students should be able to do by the end of a course, other colleagues might find this constraining or be concerned that the process may increase managerialism in the institution. While I am sympathetic to these concerns and understand them, I do think it’s possible to make the process of writing ILOs valuable for course teams and students.

I’d like to start by clarifying what ILOs are and some principles for writing them. (With apologies to those colleagues who will find this bit obvious!). ILOs describe what a student will be able to do by the end of a course. When writing ILOs for a course, aim for a modest number of clear statements that relate well to the overall aims of the programme that situates your course. Well written ILOs will give students and teachers a reference point for developing a good shared understanding of purpose and what is meant by high-quality academic work in the context of that course. This shared understanding is not a given, mismatched expectations are actually quite common (Cotterall, 2011; Hounsell et al. 2008).

Here are a couple of good examples of ILOs:

On completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Critically situate current social, political and cultural developments in Japan within their historical context.

On completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Perform accurate and efficient calculations with vectors, matrices, eigenvalues and eigenvectors in arbitrary dimensions.

ILOs usually combine an active verb with an object of learning along with some indication of the depth or breadth of learning expected at the level of the course. An important reference point when you are writing them is the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) as this sets out what is expected in courses at different levels in Scotland. Many people find Bloom’s Taxonomy a useful resource for choosing active verbs that represent increasing levels of challenge, as students progress through their studies. Try to avoid vague terms like ‘understand’ you want to emphasise what students will be able to do if they understand. I think it’s critical that we think about inclusion at the point of writing our ILOs. The last thing we want is an unnecessary ILO that inadvertently creates a barrier to participation because it would be difficult for some disabled students to demonstrate it.

For me the process of agreeing ILOs within a course team is part of those very important discussions about what really matters to us for our students’ learning. It’s unusual for larger course teams to have a fully shared understanding of this at first, so these conversations are important. When our students graduate, what do we hope they will be able to do and what do we hope others will see in them? Having concrete statements to frame this dialogue can be really useful. Once you have your ILOs they can be used to think about your course design. One of the most well-known models of course design is ‘constructive alignment’ (Biggs, 1996). The ‘constructive’ part of constructive alignment refers to constructivist perspectives that suggest that learning is always an active process during which learners construct their own understanding in relation to their prior knowledge and their interactions with teachers and peers. So from that point of view, you want ILOs that imply students engaging actively and deeply with their learning. The ‘alignment’ part suggests that we should think about how our choices of teaching and assessment practices align with these ILOs. For example, if we want students to develop creative solutions to novel problems we probably don’t want to assess using multiple choice questions!

Once the basics are in place, it might be time to think about some other possibilities. Student involvement in course design – and in how their learning goes forward – can increase engagement in learning and enhance participation (Bovill and Woolmer, 2018). Could you involve some of your 3rd year undergraduate students in discussions about the development of the ILOs for upcoming 4th year undergraduate courses? Or how about ILOs that emphasise student involvement:

On completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • design a project plan that uses appropriate research methods to explore their own specialist interests and makes a relevant contribution to the field of sustainability education.

As we develop education for an uncertain future it’s also crucial to maintain the ‘not-yetness’ in our courses (Ross and Collier, 2016). We don’t want to pin everything down so tightly and align everything so strongly that we design out exploration and responsiveness. I think that’s perfectly possible if we write our ILOs creatively:

On completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • create a multimodal artefact that effectively invites community engagement in developing emerging local solutions to global challenges.

With thanks to Cathy Bovill for her short guide to writing ILOs that informed this piece.


Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education 32, 347- 364.

Bovill, C. and Woolmer, C. (2019). How conceptualisations of curriculum in higher education influence student-staff co-creation in and of the curriculum. Higher Education 78, 407-422.

Cotterall, S. (2011). Doctoral students writing: where’s the pedagogy? Teaching in Higher Education 16(4), 413–425.

Velda McCune

Velda McCune is Deputy Director of the IAD and Head of the Learning and Teaching Team. She has oversight of the continuing professional development opportunities which the IAD offers for staff involved in teaching and supporting student learning. An important focus of her work is collaborating with colleagues in Schools and Colleges to take forward research and scholarship relating to teaching and learning in Higher Education.

One comment

  1. Very helpful and practical, thanks Velda. I’m really curious as to a)whether anyone had done a major thematic analysis of learning outcome statements in higher ed, and b)more specifically, whether it is common for learning outcomes to include dispositions rather than knowledge and capabilities.

    More specifically still, I’m wondering – given that we all probably agree we’d like students to graduate with the sustainable disposition of open-minded curiosity, and with the disposition to cooperate with other people in sharing and pursuing curiosities – whether ILOs ever specifically mention curiosity and cooperation?

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