What are my Learners Learning?

This is not a simple question.

This is not a simple question. Your students' learning will cover the curriculum as described in your Course Outline. The curriculum formally documents what completion of the course will produce. It is:

"... all the planned learning opportunities offered by the organisation to learners ... This includes those activities that educators have devised for learners which are invariably represented in the form of a written document"—M. Print, 1993, Curriculum Development and Design, 2nd edition, p. 9.

Your course outline will nominate specific types of learning that your students will experience during their study (e.g. "The development of teamwork and project management skills"). These "learning outcomes" are also often referred to as goals, learning objectives or capabilities, and they describe student achievement.

Learning outcomes can be general or quite specific, so that the student can be directly tested during their course (e.g. "Can perform long division on 8-digit numbers"). As a rule, course assessment tests whether the students have achieved the stated learning outcomes described in the course outline.

Graduate capabilities

At UNSW, most Faculties and courses choose to express their learning outcomes as graduate capabilities or attributes. These are descriptive statements about how a student will emerge from the learning process - not just what they know, but what they are able to do, how they behave and their professional values.

Usually graduate attributes are very broad statements that describe a domain of learning (e.g. "Understanding the social and cultural aspects of health and disease") followed by a much more specific capability (e.g. "Identifies health status and needs of disadvantaged groups including Indigenous people"). These specific statements can then form the basis of tests, assignments and examinations in the course.

UNSW promotes a set of University-wide Graduate Capabilities that describe the desirable characteristics of all UNSW graduates. By their nature, these are generic and are expanded into more specific graduate characteristics by each Faculty, program and course.

Unexpected and negotiated learning outcomes

As well as the stated learning outcomes of your course, students will also achieve unexpected or unintended outcomes as a result of being in the group during the course. These are not necessarily "undesirable". They migh, for instance include more generic learning such as improved writing and speaking skills, better tolerance of diversity or more self-confidence as professionals. Consider what else your students learn from your classes and from you as a representative of your discipline.

In a Constructivist Approach to Learning (University of Sydney) in which learners generate knowledge and meaning from their experiences, students often choose not to complete all the set tasks in a course, deeming some of them unnecessary. In art and design, it is not unusual for a student to depart from some of the intended learning outcomes, preferring other outcomes more appropriate to their personal enquiry. Indeed, as they advance through their course they may be responsible for setting their own learning outcomes; these can be referred to as Negotiated Learning Outcomes.

What types of learning are possible?

Whatever you choose to call them, learning outcomes or graduate capabilities are statements that describe student performance. They indicate what the learner should be able to do after instruction; they convey your expectations to your students. The knowledge, skills attitudes and understandings you seek from learners can be organised according to a number of Taxonomies of Learning (website). These are systematic attempts to sort all the possible learning outcomes into groups in order to choose appropriate teaching methods. They have been developed and refined over time and will help you to understand the different types of learning possible.

Taxonomies of learning are useful when you need to describe all the capabilities you want a graduate to achieve. Depending on the taxonomy, capabilities are listed as cognitive, affective, psychomotor abilities etc. and take a particular form using what is known as a Learned Capability Verb (LCV) that describes what a student will be able to do once the learning is completed, e.g. ride a bike, add numbers, dissect a frog, list components of DNA. These capability verbs describe student performance and form the basis of any assessment later in the course.

Remember: so that assessment can occur, the learning capability must be able to be observed and measured. Add any necessary qualifying statement necessary for this purpose. For example, "List all 4 components of DNA", "Add four 6-digit numbers".

How are learning outcomes developed?

While it may not be your responsibility at present to develop courses or write your own learning outcomes, some understanding of how they are developed and expressed will enable you to choose classroom strategies that help students attain their goals. Which classroom methods might help students to learn these capabilities? How might a student demonstrate that learning?

Another way to examine your course is to assess the teaching (or learning) goals for a specific course. You can use this Teaching Goals Inventory (website) to check this out. See how your course measures up.

How does research influence what students learn?

At first, the academic activities of research and teaching might appear quite separate and competitive. However, there is a continual process of evaluation and improvement of courses occurring that makes the connections between the two more obvious (see Mid-Semester Evaluation, Evaluating Teaching, Evaluating Curriculum).

You can influence and enrich the content of your courses by annotating weekly topics with updates from your own experience or awareness of research developments in the field. Use current news items to update activity in your field or research. This begins to introduce students to the importance of research within a discipline to add to the knowledge base being taught. Additionally, the University aims to strengthen links between teaching and research so that undergraduate and postgraduate coursework students are exposed to research paradigms.

If you don't have personal research to draw on, make the effort to examine your colleagues' interests and research activity to emphasise links with the course content. Colleagues may be able to provide you with some insight into current research in the field, or even contribute to your classes.

Sell your discipline

Be aware that you are constantly a representative of your discipline. Apart from what you tell them (content), students will also learn from your enthusiasm for topics, your language and your attitudes as a professional in your field. Use this role to "sell" your discipline and the value of the course you are teaching. This helps to engage and motivate learners.


Keep your knowledge up to date

In this video, Louise discusses the importance of keeping up to date with current theory and practice.


LOUISE Keeping Up To Date