Understanding Content

While your course content is often expressed as a weekly series of topics or activities, it is not designed that way. Course design begins with a description of the graduate; what someone who completes your course will know, what they can do and how they will behave. At UNSW, most courses and programs express these overall goals as graduate attributes or capabilities. From this description, content and activities are devised to bring the learner from their current state to that of the graduate.

In a well designed course, each student learning activity, lecture, tutorial, lab session and assessment task can be related back to this description of the desired graduate and justified as a legitimate learning experience. These activities are constrained by the time, costs and administrative limitations of the particular Faculty, which results in the inclusion or exclusion of some content. After content has been decided, the implementation or teaching of the course remains. How are those topics and activities going to be addressed in class? What can a student do to attain and demonstrate the graduate attributes?

A student-centred approach at UNSW is one that focuses on what the student needs to do in order to learn, rather than on what content the course should contain or the information the teacher needs to convey. You will notice that effective learning outcomes and graduate capabilities contain a verb—something the learner will be able to perform at assessment. The tables below lists some verbs used in expressing learning outcomes.

Cognitive areas

1) Activities which give evidence of knowing
Define, describe, identify, label, list, name, outline, reproduce, recall, select, state, present, extract, organise, recount, write, measure, relate, match, record.

2) Activities giving evidence of comprehension
Interpret, translate, estimate, justify, clarify, defend, distinguish, explain, generalise, exemplify, infer, predict, rewrite, summarise, discuss, perform, report, present, indicate, find, represent, formulate, contrast, classify, express, compare, recognise, account.

3) Activities giving evidence of application of knowledge/understanding
Apply, solve, demonstrate, change, compute, manipulate, use, employ, modify, operate, predict, produce, relate, show, select, choose, assess, operate, illustrate, verify.

4) Activities giving evidence of analysis
Recognise, distinguish between, evaluate, analyse, break down, differentiate, identify, illustrate how, infer, outline, point out, relate, select, separate, divide, compare, contrast, justify, resolve, examine, conclude, criticise, question, diagnose, categorise, elucidate.

5) Activities giving evidence of synthesis
Arrange, assemble, organise, plan, prepare, design, formulate, construct, propose, present, explain, modify, reconstruct, relate, re-organise, revise, write, summarise, account for, report, alter, argue, order, select, manage, generalise, derive, synthesise, enlarge, suggest.

6) Activities giving evidence of creativity
Originate, image, begin, design, invent, initiate, state, create, pattern, elaborate, develop, devise, generate, engender

7) Activities giving evidence of evaluation
Judge, evaluate, assess, discriminate, appraise, conclude, compare, contrast, criticise, justify, defend, rate, determine, choose, value, question, measure.

Transferable skills

1) Psycho-motor skills
Perform, execute, operate, manipulate

2) Self appraisal and reflection on practice
Reflect, identify, recognise, evaluate, criticise, judge

3) Planning and management of learning
Plan, prioritise, access, use, select, explore, identify, decide

4) Problem-solving
Identify, choose, select, recognise, implement, define, apply, assess, resolve, propose, formulate, plan

5) Communication presentation
Communicate, express, articulate, question, examine, argue, debate, explain, formalise, respond, rebut, justify, defend, listen, illustrate, demonstrate, organise, pace, model, summarise

6) Interactive and group skills
Accommodate, interact, collaborate, participate, co-operate, co-ordinate,

Theory of Constructive Alignment

One useful educational theory that helps us decide what types of teaching are most appropriate for particular learning outcomes is John Biggs' Theory of Constructive Alignment. This describes a fundamental principle of curriculum and teaching design that learning outcomes, teaching methods and assessment should "align" or work in unison to facilitate learning. There are two elements to constructive alignment:

  • Students construct meaning from what they do.
  • The teacher aligns the planned learning activities with the learning outcomes.

That is, the components of the teaching methods used and the assessment tasks are aligned to the learning activities described in the intended outcomes. This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how often class activities and assessment tasks are not logically related to the desired learning outcomes. A simple example:


Learning Activities


Develop and demonstrate self-management skills

  • Contribute personal reflections on the professional practice exercise and
  • Peer assessment
  • Plan and organise contribution to meet timelines and deadlines in on-line environment
  • Review progress and identify relevant change
  • Reflect on and identify development needs
  • Match personal strengths and abilities to selected organisational strategies

To successfully select appropriate learning strategies, it is useful to firstly think about the types of learning outcomes possible. As there are so mnay possible outcomes, taxonomies of learning offer systems for the organisation of learning outcomes. Try to become familiar with the ways these systems group learning outcomes; it will help you to think about class activities differently.