Principles and best practices

As a general principle, a well-written ILO will have the following features:
  • It will be written in the future tense;
  • It will contain a behavioural action verb to guide students as to what specifically they will expected to do;
  • It will be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-appropriate).
Learning outcomes are often written as a list starting with a general statement such as ‘At the end of this lecture/workshop/course students should be able to …’ which is followed by brief, clear statements about what the student should gain from the teaching.
There are a number of formats for writing clear outcomes; one popular approach is the ABC method.
A stands for Antecedent - the learning activity
B stands for Behaviour - the skill, knowledge or attitude being demonstrated
C stands for Criterion - the degree of acceptable performance
In practice, the criterion is rarely stated explicitly in higher education outcomes since grading standards are set for the entire course and posted separately on the syllabus. However, the ‘C’ can link to the assessment you will use to measure learning.
The following approach can help you write an appropriate learning outcome.
By the end of this unit [lecture/module/course] on [name/topic] students will be able to …
This is the antecedent (A) that introduces a list of learning outcomes that arise from the learning activity.
So consider the following Learning Outcome:
At the end of this research methods lecture students will be able to:
Explain the difference between method A and method B in terms of experimental yield in their practical report.
The opening general statement ‘At the end of this research methods lecture students will be able to ...’ provides some context and also indicates the timing. For example, what might be expected at the end of a course would be different from what could be achieved in a single lecture.
In this case the actual knowledge is about ‘method A and method B’. This is probably some form of procedural knowledge, i.e. how something is done experimentally. The modifier ‘in terms of experimental yield’ adds more detail of context and helps make what is expected more specific. Together this describes the behaviour. The last clause ‘in their practical report’ indicates how the knowledge will be applied and gives a clue to the potential assessment context.
Importantly, the action verb ‘Explain’ indicates the type and level of learning you expect of the student, and expresses this in terms of how the student will be expected to demonstrate that they have achieved it.
Indeed, the choice of action verb is a critical element of an effective ILO. We will look at action verbs more closely in the next section.