Focusing on performance and setting expectations for your learners
Having established the aims of your short course, your next step should be to draft its learning outcomes, or statements that communicate to the learner what they should be able to know or do, and at what level, by the end of the course.
As we saw in Defining your course aims, most learners who take short courses want to gain new skills or seek advancement in professional practice. An outcomes-based approach to course design is therefore particularly beneficial for short courses, as outcomes describe new capabilities as a result of engagement with a course.
Writing learning outcomes
Clear definition and communication of what learners will need to accomplish and how will improve the likelihood of their success. Outcomes should be worded as explicit statements of expectations in relation to identified standards of attainment. They should also be specific, measurable, and achievable in the given course timeframe.
This first example shows a good learning outcome.
By the end of the course, learners will be able to: Analyse the key performance metrics for UK banks based on yearly data.
However, this second example is vague and difficult to measure and assess.
By the end of the course, learners will be able to: Understand the significance of World War II.”
Tip: When writing outcomes, avoid the use of verbs such as appreciate, cover, realise, be aware of, familiarise, study, become acquainted with, gain knowledge of, comprehend, know, learn, understand. It’s better to use verbs that are more specific and measurable.
To support the writing of learning outcomes, you can refer to Bloom’s taxonomy. This taxonomy identifies three domains of learning: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor, and presents a list of verbs that can help you describe how attainment will be achieved and to what standard.
Bloom’s taxonomy contains six categories of cognitive skills spanning from lower-order skills, such as recalling fact, to higher-order skills, such as analysing or evaluating. It’s worth noticing that higher-level skills in the taxonomy also incorporate many lower-level skills. If your target audience is expected to develop analytical skills, learners may still need to memorise and recall facts and interpret, apply, or analyse them.
Course and topic-level outcomes
At a minimum, you should produce course level outcomes alongside your short course aim statement. The following examples are drawn from an introductory foreign language learning course that focuses on communication skills.
“By the end of the course, learners should be able to:
- Place orders and make reservations in service situations
- Make polite requests using a formal and informal register
- Seek clarification and find resolution using basic expressions
- Write a short online review for a service they received.”
Once the course level outcomes are established, it’s good practice to define learning outcomes at the topic/unit level that contribute to the outcomes for the course as a whole. For example:
“Topic: Going to the restaurant"
By the end of this topic, learners will be able to:
- Identify items that can be ordered in a café or a restaurant (course aim 1)
- Categorise items from the menu that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans (course aim 1)
- Express likes and dislikes using a limited range of basic expressions (course aim 3)
- Explain to the waiter their dietary needs (course aims 2 and 3)
- Articulate politely why they want to send back an order (course aims 2 and 3).”
Aims, outcomes, activities, and assessments
As you can see, course aims, outcomes, and topic outcomes should be aligned. The aim provides a concise goal of what the educator intends to achieve. The outcomes describe the individual skills, knowledge, and attitudes that learners are expected to acquire and demonstrate in relation to those broader aims.
Writing learning outcomes should not be seen as an isolated task. Once stated, they should drive the selection of content, activities, assessments, and tools that can best facilitate those outcomes.
The UCL Arena Centre has produced a toolkit titled ‘Creating effective programme learning outcomes’. The toolkit is applicable to the programme and module context, but is nevertheless also very useful for short courses.