Teaching & Learning


Creating effective programme learning outcomes

Guidance on creating effective learning outcomes which accurately define what students will be expected to do by the end of a programme or module.


23 November 2022

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About this topic

All UCL programmes and modules must state a vision of what features of the discipline or subject students will study, and what level of capabilities they should achieve by completion.

Learning outcomes encapsulate that vision at programme and module levels as a short list of clear statements focussed on student activity.

They bring transparency and precision to the design of teaching and learning activities and assessment. 

This practical guide is designed to help you to develop learning outcomes that describe the intended result of the learning process, whether these are at programme or module level.

They are also used as an integral part of individual session planning so it’s important to understand how to move between the different levels. This guide should be read alongside QAA subject benchmark statements. 

Visual representation of programme and module learning outcomes:


A Programme's Learning Objectives (PLOs) are covered to some degree (or not) by each of its module's intended learning outcomes (ILOs). Some modules are core to this programme, and others are optional. Each student must do a set of modules that together capture all the PLOs. 

Why it matters 

It is important that students understand what is expected in terms of their learning rather than simply what they will be taught.

Learning outcomes differ from aims (the institutional ‘mission’, scope and values of a programme or module, often included in the programme description), objectives (the features of the subject domain the teaching will cover) and tasks (specific activities students are expected to undertake as part of their learning).

Learning outcomes describe the result of a learning process, what students will learn and be able to do if they successfully complete the programme or module of study.

Occasionally learning outcomes need to change due to external changes, for example change in legislation or requirements of a professional body. 

Learning outcomes help the planning of teaching activities. What the students will achieve in practice will also be affected by how and what they learn. Thus, at the beginning of a programme or module, you can only try to predict what results students may gain, hence the term ‘intended’ learning outcomes (ILOs). Students' experiences will differ, and individual learning will often go beyond what the formal outcomes indicate. ILOs, nonetheless, provide a common baseline. 

Effective outcomes lead to better alignment of the activities the students engage in, the assessment methods applied and the criteria for expected student performance.

Outcomes will help you to:
  • Refine and realise the vision and identity of the programme.
  • Create a strong sense of purpose.
  • Formally specify the programme or module to the institution, as part of the approval process.
  • Communicate the vision to programme teams and module leaders. 
  • Communicate with students (including potential students) what they are expected to be able to achieve as a minimum, the criteria to be used to assess them and the level of achievement against a marking scale (the rubric).
  • Ensure assessment methods align with the ILOs and fully allow students to demonstrate the skills they are expected to attain (‘constructive alignment’). 
  • Help structure feedback on assessments. 
  • Design the student journey as a series of connected activities, throughlines and tasks that can be mapped transparently against the ILOs. Evaluate the effectiveness of the programme or module for teachers, students and the institution.  

Clear, well written learning outcomes will save you time and effort by making it easier to plan teaching and write assessments, provide actionable feedback to students and help structure the overall programme and module design. 

Only got 2 minutes? 

Jump straight to our key take aways. 

How to write formal intended learning outcomes

As outcomes play such an important role in approval, they are usually expressed in a standardised format to help clear communication.

They should be written in plain English and worded in a way that indicates learning rather than describing specific tasks. All learning outcomes must be measurable, as they form the basis for assessment and evaluation. They should be written in such a way as to make their successful achievement demonstrable by students.

ILOs therefore usually: 

  • Include only the most important outcomes.
  • Are achievable within the programme or modules of study.
  • Are easily understood by current and future students.
  • Are written as a statement in the future tense (e.g., at the end of this module you are expected to be able to…).
  • Employ a specific active verb to explain what learning activity the learner must do.
  • State specifically what students should be able to do because of their learning and to what level. 

Non-specific verbs such as "understand" should be avoided. Including verbs such as “explain,” or “identify,” that indicates how that understanding would be demonstrated by students is more effective, as it would then be measurable.

You may be familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy, a classification system developed in the 1950s with numerous interpretations. The original framework is still valuable because it encourages us to express learning outcomes using a set of specific, active verbs so that students know precisely what level of achievement is expected of them and how it will be assessed. 

Differentiating between programme and module outcomes:

Differentiating programme and module learning outcomes is challenging. Both represent pedagogical enactments but at different levels. Asking ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘where’ questions can help you to move up or down levels (Table 1). The why question at programme level should result in understanding the values of your programme and its positive contribution to society.




Asking why? of an outcome moves level upwards 



Asking how? of an outcome moves level downwards



Asking where? of an outcome determines its position







Characteristics of outcomes

Programme outcomes
  • Six to twelve programme learning outcomes (PLOs) should be defined for each programme. 
  • PLOs should embody the programme's vision and identity, as well as the intended learning over the whole course of study.
  • They should be consistent with and complement the programme description, aims and academic rationale in the UCL Programme Proposal.
  • When developing programme outcomes, consider what graduating students will be able to do after completing the programme. Indicate the main skills, abilities and knowledge that they will gain.
  • Each PLO should denote a specific skill set or ability. PLOs should be clear and easy to understand to help convey the value of the programme.
  • PLOs should be mirrored in the outcomes of the core modules and vice versa. To make sure there are no gaps, map the module outputs against the PLOs.
  • Consider how each PLO may be summatively assessed. Assessment methods should address the breadth of expected knowledge and the range of skills and attributes that the students learn across the programme.
  • Where a programme is made up of multiple routes or pathways leading to different named qualifications, the learning outcomes for each must be clearly stated.
Module outcomes

Module outcomes should be more specific than programme outcomes. They should: 

  • Align with the brief module description in the UCL Module Proposal Form.
  • Relate to clear criteria for assessing levels of achievement.
  • Be measurable by appropriate assessment methods.

To move from programme level to module level, simply ask “how” and “where” of each programme outcome statement. This is often done best in a team so you can discuss and debate correct positioning (Table 1). 

  • Asking “how” of the programme level outcome; “Critically evaluate and apply diverse theoretical and conceptual approaches to researching (x subject)”, will determine the various theories and concepts students will learn in the modules and asking “where” will determine which modules they sit, and how they might build upon each other. 
  • Asking “why” of a module outcome statement, for example: “critically assess a range of metrics for measuring (an aspect of the subject), including the ways in which these metrics are produced” will align to a higher (programme level) outcome. 
  • Continuing to ask “how” will enable you to continue to develop teaching outcomes for planning schemes of work (weekly module plan or storyboard) and individual teaching sessions. Continuing to ask “why” will elevate outcomes to the values, purpose and graduate attributes of a programme

Most UCL modules are 15 and 30 credits. 15 credit modules should have between 3-4 broad learning outcomes; 30 credit modules should have between 4-5 broad learning outcomes. Assessment will always relate to ILOs. 

Undergraduate and Postgraduate differences 

There are some differences between designing learning outcomes for UG and PG:

Level 6 - Third/final year undergraduate

Is associated with analytical approaches, problem-solving, dealing with ambiguity and imperfect data, communication of ideas, problems and solutions.

Hence, typical ILO verbs that could be used at this level might include:

  • analyse
  • compare
  • contrast
  • categorise
  • investigate
  • detect
  • survey
  • experiment
  • discriminate
  • inspect. 
Level 7 - Postgraduate/final year Masters

Is associated with dealing with more complex issues systematically, independently, and creatively, demonstrating initiative, autonomy, planning and implementing projects at a professional or equivalent level. Typical ILO verbs used may include:

  • compose
  • produce
  • design
  • prepare
  • predict
  • modify
  • plan
  • invent
  • formulate
  • propose
  • organise
  • originate
  • derive.

Where the same module is shared across UG Level 6 and PG Level 7, a distinction in the assessment marking criteria needs to be established to reflect the correct level. 

Example of learning outcomes:
Year 1 module (L4)
  • Construct a simple argument using appropriate concepts, theories and evidence.
  • Use examples, illustrations and case studies in presenting an argument.
Year 2 module (L5)
  • Construct arguments that relate to the use of xx, applying appropriate evidence, concepts and theories.
Year 3 module (L6)
  • Construct a detailed and sustained argument that acknowledges the complexity inherent in the subject or topic and is informed by current research developments.
  • Synthesise and critically evaluate evidence, information and arguments from a diversity of sources, including publications informed by research developments.
Programme (UG degree)
  • Select and synthesise evidence, information and arguments from a diversity of sources including publications informed by recent research developments in a particular subject.


Aligning outcomes with assessment

A sequence and combination of learning activities, as well as assessment tasks, make up a student's journey through a module. All activities and assessment tasks should aim to help students achieve the module’s learning outcomes.

In terms of learning design, outcomes can be employed to clearly and explicitly align activities, assessment tasks, and marking criteria.

When writing module ILOs, think about the specific types of activities that students will be expected to complete to meet the criteria. This will assist in ensuring that the ILOs are practical and attainable.

At UCL, activities are often categorised according to Prof. Diana Laurillard’s six learning types, namely:

  1. acquisition
  2. investigation
  3. collaboration
  4. discussion
  5. practice
  6. production (which is usually associated with assessment). 
A straightforward way to ensure constructive alignment is to complete the following table for each learning outcome:

Learning Outcome at L6

Possible assessment methods

Assessment criteria

Create a rubric for each assessment to indicate the level of performance expected for a given grade.

L6 descriptor (SEEC)

Synthesise and critically evaluate evidence, information and arguments from a diversity of sources, including publications informed by research developments.


Essay, podcast, video, presentation or viva.

  1. Address the agreed topic of the assignment and have a clear focus and structure so that there is logical development of the arguments.
  2. Be situated in the context of relevant knowledge and debate and be accurately referenced.
  3. Demonstrate the ability to analyse and judge the quality of evidence cited.
  4. Make sound connections between a range of theories.
  5. Show independence of thought, originality, and where appropriate, the ability to formulate innovative proposals.


Applies an in-depth understanding of areas of knowledge and relevant selected specialist skills in complex and interrelated learning, work or practice contexts.

Acts autonomously and works within relevant self-selected guidelines using specialist techniques.

Takes responsibility for determining and achieving personal and/or group outcomes and for the critical evaluation of own and others’ capabilities and development.

Selects relevant specialist strategies and principles to analyse, evaluate, organise and communicate the significance of information and data in complex contexts.

Designs and develops specialist projects and/or activities to enhance inter-related areas of own and/or others learning.

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Key takeaways

  1. Programme and core module learning outcomes are always aligned. Learning outcomes communicate the intended result of the learner journey to students, teaching staff and the institution a short list of clear statements.
  2. An intended learning outcome (ILO) statement always includes a verb to indicate the learning activity and the expected level of attainment.
  3. Effective outcomes help to design better alignment of the activities the students engage in, the assessment methods used and the criteria for expected student performance.  

Further help

Contact any of your education support named contacts for advice.


Learning objectives vs outcomes

The skills and knowledge that a student should possess on successful completion of a course of study. 

The terms ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘learning objectives’ are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences; objectives are usually a statement of intention while an outcome is a measure of achievement.

Source: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/learning-objectives-and-outcomes

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Click to view references and further reading 

QAA Framework for higher education qualifications  

QAA Subject Benchmark Statements are part of the QAA Quality Code. They set out expectations of standards for bachelors and masters level degrees in a range of disciplines.

Credit level descriptors.  These define the level of challenge, complexity, and autonomy expected of a learner on completion of a defined and bounded learning activity such as a module or programme of learning

10 steps for creating marking rubrics: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/uploads/production/document/path/11/11370/Guidance_for_Creating_Marking_Rubrics.pdf


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This guide has been produced by UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education. You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the project.