What is the purpose of course learning outcomes (CLOs)?

This post challenges the easy answers to that question and provides resources to move from a constructive alignment approach towards assurance of learning (AoL).

From a regulatory perspective, CLOs establish the level of the course and demonstrate compliance with the Australian Qualifications Framework and (where appropriate) external accreditation requirements.

The AQF regulates qualifications across different education and training sectors and providers to ensure they are consistent, nationally recognised, and of high quality. It covers secondary, community, vocational and higher education, certificates through to doctorates, and is applicable to every discipline. This means that the knowledge, skills and application descriptors are necessarily generic.

Take a look at the criteria for a Bachelor and a Masters course:

Level 7 (Bachelor)Level 9 (Masters)
Knowledge– Broad, coherent theoretical and technical knowledge with depth in disciplines.– Advanced, integrated understanding of complex knowledge in disciplines.
Skills– Analyse and evaluate information/solutions to unpredictable and sometimes complex problems.
– Transmit knowledge, skills and ideas to others.
– Critically analyse, reflect, and synthesise complex information and problems.
– Research and apply theories.
– Interpret and transmit knowledge to specialist and non-specialist audiences.
Application– Specialist advice and functions.
– Autonomy, well-developed judgement and responsibility as a practitioner or learner within broad parameters.
– Expert advice and functions.
– Autonomy, expert judgement, adaptability and responsibility as a practitioner or learner.

Here’s a question for you: how useful are AQF level descriptors for assuring student learning?

Hold that thought. Let’s consider another purpose for CLOs.

Learning outcomes describe what students are expected to know or be able to do at the completion of a learning experience. They serve as a guide for curriculum design, and a framework for assessing student learning.

For this reason, CLOs are mapped to unit learning outcomes (ULOs), which are mapped to assessment tasks. This is constructive alignment, a concept pioneered by educational theorist John Biggs, which states that for effective learning to occur, the learning objectives, teaching methods, and assessment tasks within a learning experience must be aligned.

So far, so familiar, right?

Including graduate futures in holistic constructive alignment offers a way of thinking beyond the course:

Holistic constructive alignment by Bonnie Dean for Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching

Let’s consider another purpose for CLOs.

When aligned with ULOs, they offer a structured way to communicate how learning experiences progressively build students’ knowledge and skills. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework that supports the design of learning outcomes to achieve this purpose:

Let’s rephrase the earlier question: How useful do you think Bloom’s taxonomy is for assuring student learning? In other words, can student achievement of learning outcomes be observed?

Well, not directly through constructive alignment or Bloom’s taxonomy. For that, Biggs and Collis (1982) developed the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) Taxonomy:

The SOLO Taxonomy shows increasing complexity in cognition, and offers a way of assessing the depth and quality of students’ learning. This represents a move away from aligning course components towards assessing whether students are achieving the intended learning outcomes – that is, assurance of learning (AoL).

A useful model for considering CLOs in relation to AoL is Fink’s (2013) Categories of significant learning which moved beyond the cognitive domain and present learning as interactive rather than hierarchical:

Fink (2013) guides the development of learning outcomes for significant learning and the observation of student achievement. Consider the following questions when writing or reviewing your learning outcomes:

Significant Learning CategoryQuestions to Ask 
Foundational Knowledge What key information (facts, terms, formula, concepts, relationships…) is important for students to understand and remember in the future? 
Application What kinds of thinking are important for students to learn here: 

– Critical thinking, in which students analyse and evaluate?
– Creative thinking, in which students imagine and create? 
– Practical thinking, in which students solve problems and make decisions? 

What important skills do students need to learn? What complex projects do students need to learn how to manage? 
Integration What connections (similarities and interactions) should students recognise and make… 

– Among ideas within this course? 
– Among the information, ideas, and perspectives in this course and those in other courses or areas?
– Between material in this course and students’ own personal, social, and work lives? 
Human Dimension What can or should students learn about themselves? What can or should students learn about interacting with people that they may actually encounter in the future?
Caring What changes would you like to see in what students care about, that is, any changes in their…

– Interests? 
– Values?
– Feelings?
Learning How to Learn What should students know about learning…

– How to be a good student in a course like this?
– How to engage in inquiry and construct knowledge with this subject matter?
– How to become self-directed learners relative to this subject? That is, have a learning agenda of what else they need and want to learn and a plan for learning it?

This post asked: What is the purpose of CLOs? The aim was to problematise this question, and shift your thinking from a constructive alignment approach towards assurance of learning (AoL). The questions above from Fink (2013) provide a useful discussion starter for teaching teams to evaluate the effectiveness of CLOs for student success.

Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing Teaching through Constructive Alignment. Higher Education, 32, 347-364.

Biggs, J., & Collis, K. F. (1982). Evaluating the quality of learning: The SOLO taxonomy. New York: Academic Press.

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook: The Cognitive Domain. David McKay, New York.

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences. John Wiley & Sons.

Banner image: Photo by Triff on Shutterstock

Posted by Agnes Bosanquet

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