Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-16, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 3 February, 2016 , © Lee Harvey 2004–16.


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Learning outcomes

core definition

A learning outcome is the specification of what a student should learn as the result of a period of specified and supported study.

explanatory context

Learning outcomes are concerned with the achievements of the learner rather than the intentions of the teacher (expressed in the aims of a module or course). They can take many forms and can be broad or narrow in nature (Adam, 2004).


Learning outcomes and ‘aims and objectives’ are often used synonymously, although they are not the same. Adam (2004) notes that ‘Aims are concerned with teaching and the teacher’s intentions whilst learning outcomes are concerned with learning’ and Moon (2002) suggests that one way to distinguish aims from learning outcomes is that aims indicate the general content, direction and intentions behind the module from the designer/teacher viewpoint.


However, learning outcomes and objectives are more difficult to distinguish as objectives can be written in terms that are very similar to that used in learning outcomes. Indeed, in the UK polytechnic sector in the 1970s, objectives were written that identified what students should be able to do; this was well before they were known as learning outcomes.

analytical review

One attempt to synthesise various definitions states:

A learning outcome is a written statement of what the successful student/learner is expected to be able to do at the end of the module/course unit, or qualification. (Adam, 2004)

The Credit Common Accord for Wales defines learning outcomes as:

Statements of what a learner can be expected to know, understand and/or do as a result of a learning experience. (QCA /LSC, 2004, p. 12).

University of Warwick (2011) defines learning outcomes as:

The skills and knowledge a student will possess upon successful completion of a course. Learning outcomes as set out in Warwick course specifications are divided into four categories:

1. Subject knowledge and understanding;

2. Subject-specific skills are practical skills, practice of which is integral to the course, e.g. laboratory skills, language skills, counselling skills;

3. Cognitive skills, intellectual skills such as an understanding of methodologies, synthesis, evaluation or ability in critical analysis;

4. Key skills are skills that are readily transferable to employment in other contexts, such as written and oral communication, working within a team, problem solving, numeracy and IT skills.


University of Exeter (2007) defines:

Learning Outcome: An expression of what a student will demonstrate on the successful completion of a module. Learning outcomes:

·        are related to the level of the learning;

·        indicate the intended gain in knowledge and skills that a typical student will achieve;

·        should be capable of being assessed.

The university distinguished the module outcomes from those for the programme, which is defines as follows:

Programme Outcome: An expression contained within a programme specification of what a typical learner will have achieved at the end of the programme. Programme outcomes are related to the qualification level and will relate to the sum of the experience of learners on a particular programme. (University of Exeter, 2007)


UMIST (2001) defines a learning outcome as:

Learning Outcome: the acquisition of the knowledge, skill or understanding that is the desired outcome of a learning process.

The ECTS (2004) view is that:

Learning outcomes are statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate after a completion of a process of learning.


A Canadian view is that:

Learning outcome statements are content standards for the provincial education system. Learning outcomes are statements of what students are expected to know and to do at an indicated grade, they comprise the prescribed curriculum. (BC, 2004).

In Ireland, the national framework of qualifications (National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2003, p. 21 et seq) considers three categories of learning outcomes:

knowledge, know-how and skill, and competence. These are defined as follows:

• knowledge: cognitive representation of ideas or events;

• know-how and skill: performance of a task, know-how being the procedural knowledge required to carry out a task;

• competence: effective and creative demonstration and deployment of knowledge and skill in human situations



CHEA (2003, p. 5) provides a definition, with riders:

Student learning outcomes are properly defined in terms of the knowledge, skills, and abilities that a student has attained at the end (or as a result) of his or her engagement in a particular set of higher education experiences. Not all of the outcomes of college are confined to learning. Additional behavioral outcomes or experiences that may result from attending an institution or program include employment and increased career mobility, enhanced incomes and lifestyles, the opportunity to enroll for additional education, or simply a more fulfilled and reflective life. Hopefully, these are related to learning. Indeed, evidence that students have obtained such benefits is often used by institutions and programs as a proxy for instructional effectiveness. But such subsequent experiences, however successful, should not be confused with actual mastery of what has been taught. Similarly, student and graduate satisfaction is important, especially as it is related to persistence and the continuing opportunity to learn. But it should not be confused with student learning itself.


A view from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) (2004) adds a normative element to the definition:

Learning outcomes are statements that specify what learners will know or be able to do as a result of a learning activity.  Outcomes are usually expressed as knowledge, skills, or attitudes.  Learning outcomes should flow from a needs assessment.  The needs assessment should determine the gap between an existing condition and a desired condition. Learning outcomes are statements that describe a desired condition—that is, the knowledge, skills, or attitudes required to fulfill the need.  They represent the solution to the identified need or issue.  Learning outcomes provide direction in the planning of a learning activity.


The UNESCO definition identifies both outcomes and student learning outcomes although they do not differ much:

Outcomes: Anticipated or achieved results of programmes or the accomplishment of institutional objectives, as demonstrated by a wide range of indicators (such as student knowledge, cognitive skills, and attitudes). Outcomes are direct results of the instructional programme, planned in terms of student/learner growth in all areas. An outcome must be distinguished from an objective, which is a sought-after result. Generally, each outcome statement should describe one effect of the instructional programme, and not accumulate several into one statement. Also, the statements should be clearly detailed and easily understandable by all teaching staff and students in the given area or department.

Student Learning Outcomes: Statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand, and/or be able to demonstrate after completion of a process of learning as well as the specific intellectual and practical skills gained and demonstrated by the successful completion of a unit, course, or programme. Learning outcomes, together with assessment criteria, specify the minimum requirements for the award of credit, while grading is based on attainment above or below the minimum requirements for the award of credit. Learning outcomes are distinct from the aims of learning in that they are concerned with the achievements of the learner rather than with the overall intentions of the teacher. (Vlãsceanu et al., 2004, pp. 41–42)

Hussey and Smith (2003, p. 362) distinguishes emergent and intended learning outcomes. The latter is, in essence,what the course or programme is designed to deliver and the former are the learning outcomes that emerge as the learner engages with the course and relates it to their own experience. Hussey and Smith specify different forms of emergent learning outcomes:

Contiguous Learning Outcomes are those which are sufficiently close to the intended learning outcomes to be considered by the teacher as making a positive contribution towards their achievement.

Related Learning Outcomes are those which are considered to contribute to the subject matter in terms of its consolidation or extension within the area, they broaden, elaborate and increase sophistication.

Incidental Learning Outcomes are those which, whilst not contributing significantly to the specific subject matter, are considered by the teacher to contribute towards knowledge and experience within the field in general.

The Ontario Council of Academic Vice Presidents (OCAV, 2006, p. 4) define leaning outcome as what is achieved rather than intended, which is reserved for learning objectives:

Learning outcomes are what the student has actually learned or achieved in the program or course.

A similar approach is outlined in the CEDEFOP report (Le Mouillour, 2005, p. 46):

According to Tissot (2004, p. 79), the learning outcomes are a ‘set of knowledge, skills and/or competences an individual acquired and/or is able to demonstrate after completion of a learning process’. This definition focuses on achieved learning outcomes in respect of employability and the labour market…. In Tissot’s definition, learning outcomes are a precise statement of what a learner can do once credits have been successfully gained.

associated issues

Writing leaning outcomes

Adam (2004) notes:

The creation of learning outcomes is not a precise science and they require considerable thought to write – it is easy to get them wrong and create a learning strait jacket. Learning outcomes are commonly further divided into different categories of outcomes. The most common sub-divisions are between: subject specific outcomes that relate to the subject discipline and the knowledge and/or skills particular to it; and generic (sometimes called key transferable skills) outcomes that relate to any and all disciplines e.g. written, oral, problem-solving, information technology, and team working skills, etc. The identification of generic skills is seen as important in enhancing the employability of graduates whatever their discipline.

related areas

See also




outcomes-based approach


Adam, S., 2004, Using Learning Outcomes: A consideration of the nature, role, application and implications for European education of employing ‘learning outcomes’ at the local, national and international levels. United Kingdom Bologna Seminar 1–2 July 2004, Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh Conference Centre) Edinburgh. Scotland.

American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), 2004, Developing and Submitting a Program Proposal to the AALL Professional Development Committee, ‘What are learning outcomes?’, not available 20 January 2012.

Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) CHEA Institute for Research and Study of Accreditation and Quality Assurance, 2003, Statement Of Mutual Responsibilities for Student Learning Outcomes:  Accreditation, Institutions,  and Programs, September 2003. pdf available at, accessed 20 September 2012.

European Union (EU), 2004, ECTS Users’ Guide – European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System for Lifelong Learning, European Commission. Published summer 2004.

Government of British Colombia Ministry of Education (BC).referenced in Adam, S., 2004, Using Learning Outcomes: A consideration of the nature, role, application and implications for European education of employing ‘learning outcomes’ at the local, national and international levels. United Kingdom Bologna Seminar 1–2 July 2004, Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh Conference Centre) Edinburgh. Scotland.

Hussey, T. and Smith, P., 2003, 'The uses of learning outcomes', Teaching in Higher Education, 8(3), pp. 357–68.

Le Mouillour, I., 2005, European Approaches to Credit (transfer) Systems in VET: An assessment of the applicability of existing credit systems to a European credit (transfer) system for vocational education and training (ECVET), European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) Dossier series; 12 Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

Moon, J., 2002, The Module and Programmes Development Handbook (London, Kogan Page).

National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2003, Report on the workshop on the inclusion of international awards in the national framework of qualifications. Dublin: NQAI, available at, accessed 25 May 2005, not available 9 October 2012.

Ontario Council of Academic Vice Presidents (OCAV), 2006,UPRAC Review and Audit Guidelines, 12 October 2006.

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Learning + Skills Council (QCA /LSC) 2004, Principles for a credit framework for England: Terms and definitions, pp. 11–13,  March (London: QCA /LSC). Uses definitions from the Credit Common Accord for Wales published in July 2003.

Tissot, P., 2004, Terminology of vocational training policy. A multilingual glossary for an enlarged Europe. Luxembourg: EUR-OP.

University of Exeter, 2007, TQA Manual, Learning and Teaching Definitions, Last updated August 2007, last reviewed September 2011 (originally 2002), accessed 20 September 2012.

University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), 2001, Annex 1: Glossary, UM/DG/005, posted 30/08/01. No longer at this address, 2 February 2011. UMIST merged with the Victoria University of Manchester to form the University of Manchester on 22 October 2004.

University of Warwick, 2011, Course Specifications: Glossary of Terms relating to Course Specifications, last revised 18 October 2011, accessed 29 January 2012

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–16

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