4. Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

Book: Writing Good Learning Outcomes and Objectives (October 2022)

8-Stage Learning Design Framework

Student Profiles Contexts Media Choices Intended Learning Outcomes Assessment Learning and Teaching Activities Feedback Evaluation

Developing Effective Learning Outcomes

31 July 2018

Citation: Atkinson S.P. (2018) Developing Effective Learning Outcomes. Retrieved from https://sijen.com/research-interests/8-stage-learning-design-framework/4-intended-learning-outcomes-ilos

Before we explore the role that ILOs play in higher education design, there are two other terms to familiarise yourself with: aims and objectives. Different academics use the terms differently, so it is important to define our usage.

What are the Aims?

Aims outline the broad purpose or goal of a programme or module. They are not intended to be statements of what students will learn or do (that is the function of the ILOs), rather they summarise the over-arching intentions of the course.

Very often you will see the ‘aims’ also referred to as the ‘aims and objectives’ of a course of study. We prefer to use simply the term ‘aims’ alone because ’objectives’ denotes a historic style of learning design and we use the term ‘objectives’ differently now. Normally ‘aims’ should be written in response to two questions:

  • What is the purpose of this programme or module?
  • What is the programme or module trying to achieve?

Aims should be succinct and provide students with a broad overview of what to expect from a given course of study.

Examples of Aims for four different modules

  • To provide students with an opportunity to practice clinical skills.
  • To provide a review of the historical development, and current configuration, of the legal system in England and Wales.
  • To challenge practitioners to reflect on their existing practice and allow them to evaluate alternative approaches.
  • To support students to undertake research into a contemporary social-media marketing challenges.

In these single sentences, it is possible to summarize the aims of a given module.

I believe the aims should always be as succinct as possible. Sometimes it is necessary to explain why a particular module appears in a specific programme, or indeed why it might represent a generic ‘cross-level’ option in a range of programmes.

Aims: Core or Options in core modules, aims are there to provide students with a very brief idea of what the intention of the course is. They should illustrate the role of the module in relation to the programme students are studying.

In optional modules, aims should help students make decisions about whether this is a module they wish to take.

What are the Objectives?

Objectives can be written for the faculty and assessors, although the more student-friendly the language used the better. The language used to describe education continuously evolves. Historically, when the educational design was focussed on the tutor who was teaching, rather than the student who is learning, module or programme descriptions often used objective-based terminology, which could be described as passive. As higher education has developed a greater focus on students’ learning, these claims would be better phrased as an intended learning outcome, as an active intent on the part of the student.

Passive (old) Active (new)
“To introduce students to the theories of business strategy.” “To enable students to be able to apply a range of theories relating to business strategies”

Objectives are still worthwhile as a declaration of what the teacher intends to facilitate the students to be able to do. However, we suggest that this is more useful at the session, topic or seminar level. Rather than asking the student to cope with learning outcomes for every session and risk undermining their engagement with the module ILOs, it is preferable to use alternative language. Objectives are different from outcomes in the 8-SLDF because objectives are never formally assessed and outcomes always are.

As a consequence, the language of intended learning outcomes is only appropriate for formal, and some non-formal learning,  contexts where there is an institutionally supported curriculum and implied or actual assessment. For informal or incidental learning, the more vernacular use of the term objective is appropriate.

What are Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)?

ILOs are the detailed explanations, written in language the students will understand before beginning the module or programme, as to what they will be able to DO when they have successfully completed the learning.

Many quality assurance structures, institutional or external, require Programme and Module Specifications contain details of the ‘intended learning outcomes’ (ILOs) of the programme of study. ILOs serve to provide students with a ‘checklist’ of the types of skills, attributes, abilities or competencies they should be able to evidence through successfully completing the module or programme.

Intended Learning Outcomes should not be seen as a straight-jacket for faculty. Rather, if they are well written, they should provide scaffolding for creativity in teaching and assessment.

Most teachers can identify any number of unintended learning outcomes, depending on the character of the cohort, the changing context in which learning takes place or the emergent nature of the discipline. However, the ILOs are the facets of learning that will be assessed. They should be written knowing that these are the capabilities that will be assessed, not the content knowledge.

Universities have traditionally focussed very much on the intellectual skills graduates are expected to develop through their studies. As important as these are, students themselves expect a broader range of skills. Employers expect a range of attributes above and beyond intellectual skills. (S. P. Atkinson, 2015)

It is important to incorporate a range of different domains of learning into our module and programme specifications. The focus of your learning will determine the balance of the ILOs you write but I suggest all five should be present in each module. More on these later.

Domain Vernacular usage Description
Metacognitive describes the perspectives adopted by the individual towards the relationship between self and knowledge intended to represent the ‘nature’ of the discipline regarding the personal-epistemological and metacognitive development of students
Cognitive often referred to as intellectual skills refers to ‘knowledge structures’ in cognition, the progressively complex use of knowledge artefacts
Affective sometimes referred to professional ‘skills’ or attributes perception of value issues, and ranges from simple awareness (Receiving), through to the internalization of personal value systems
Interpersonal referred to as communication skills Often referred to as ‘transferable skills’ refers to progressively complex levels in interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, collaboration and cross-cultural communication
Psychomotor referred to as practical skills refers to progressively complex manual or physical skills. This could be the ability to use a complex piece of software, instrument or paper documentation

You may see other formulations too. It is not uncommon to see ‘transferable skills’ as a generic term for skills deemed to be other than intellectual ones. The 8-SLDF advocates that it is preferable to identify ILOs in these five domains wherever possible. To give them appropriate weighting and importance in any university or professional programme is important. I believe all learning across five domains is ultimately transferable.

Structure of Learning Outcomes

The usual format for an ILO has three elements:

  • an active verb,
  • followed by the subject of learning,
  • followed by the context of learning.

Illustrated below shows two examples of ILOs for different disciplines across all are five domain of learning, ten in total. We should read each with the pretext “On successful completion of this module, you will be able to…”


Illustration of five domains with learning outcome examples Learning outcomes across five domains of learning. Well-structured outcomes require a single active verb, subject and context.

You notice ILOs are:

  • written in the future tense, “students will be able to”
  • begin with a single active verb. There will be some exceptions where the conventions of language dictate (such as the use of ‘compare and contrast’) but it is always preferable to try and write a single sentence with a single active verb
  • use language that students will understand before they embark on the module, avoiding abbreviations and acronyms and where necessary spelt out or explained (DOM)
  • describes an outcome not a process (the scheme of work is where you describe the content)
  • specific not detailed. The exemplar ILOs above deliberately don’t say which ‘regulatory framework’ or which ‘theoreticians’. These ILOs would stand even though the two elements were to change.
  • achievable and measurable. All module outcomes should be assessed and passed

You should also be able to recognise that a good module and programme design:

  • uses as many ILOs as necessary to reflect the breadth and depth of the modules learning in the context of the programme as whole;
  • demonstrates that coordination across modules within a programme has occurred. This is important to ensure that the same abilities are not being repeatedly assessed at the neglect of others

Relationship between aims, outcomes and objectives

Here are two different modules illustrating the relationship between aims, outcome and objectives.

AIMS (Module Level) AIMS (Module Level)
To enable students to practice and develop clinical skills. To support students’ review of the historical development, and current configuration, of the legal system in England and Wales.
OUTCOMES (Module Level: Interpersonal Domain or ‘Communication Skills’) OUTCOMES (Module Level: Cognitive Domain or ‘Intellectual Skills’)
On successful completion of this module, you will be able to: effectively interact with patients in a clinical context. differentiate between the branches of the judiciary and articulate their respective roles in England and Wales.
OBJECTIVES (Session Level) OBJECTIVES (Session Level)
To identify the appropriateness of questions designed to ascertain a patient’s history and symptoms. To identify the roles of coroners’, ecclesiastical and military courts and their respective jurisdictions.

ILOs are stage 4 of the 8-SLDF. Stages 4, 5 and 6 of the 8-SLDF should be regarded as deeply entwined and should be developed, as a team, in an iterative fashion. There are three elements of learning design that are essential as you work through these three stages, these are constructive alignment, levels and progressive taxonomies.

Constructive Alignment

The reason that ILOs are regarded as the foundation of outcomes-based learning design is that they form the backbone of the constructive alignment of any course of study.

Whilst the ILOs provide students with a ‘checklist’ of the types of skills, attributes, abilities or competencies they should also serve to define the nature of the assessment and the learning activities. The same active verbs will describe the skills which will be assessed. It also follows that these ‘verbs’ are what should be taught.

Visualisation of Constructive Alignment Simon Atkinson adapted from Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student does (3rd ed.). Buckingham. GB: Open University Press.

Given that all ILOs in a module must normally be passed, it is important that you are realistic in how you intend to allow the student to evidence their achievement of them, in other words, how you plan to assess them. We explore that in stage 5 of the 8-SLDF that deals with assessment.

Ideally, a course should be designed with the ILOs first, then an assessment strategy and finally the learning activities and associated content comes last.

Levels, Benchmarks and Professional Standards

As well as being aware of the notion of constructive alignment it is also important to remind course designers that they need to craft their outcomes in line with their quality assurance agencies guidelines on levels, subject or discipline benchmarks and professional standards.


Intended Learning Outcomes are designed to reflect the level at which a subject is being studied. The language used should reflect the increasing level of complexity, whichever domain is involved, as the students engage within the module or across a programme. Levels, as defined by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (UK) are set out below.

Level 8 UK Exit Awards QF-EHEA
Level 8 Doctoral level qualifications e.g.

PhD, EdD, DClinPsyc

Third cycle (end of cycle) qualifications
Level 7 Masters degrees

Integrated Masters,

Postgraduate Diplomas,

Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)

Postgraduate Certificates

Second cycle (end of cycle) qualifications
Level 6 Honours degree

Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)

First cycle (end of cycle) qualifications
Level 5 HNDs, Diplomas of Higher Education and Foundation degrees Short cycle (within or linked to a first cycle qualification)
Level 4 Certificates of Higher Education


Level 3 A Levels

L3 Extended Diploma / Diploma

Level 2 GCSE (Grades A-C)

L2 Diploma (1st Diploma)

Level 1 GCSE (Grades D-G)

L1 Diploma (Foundation)

The QAA Framework for Higher Education Qualifications contains ‘descriptors’ at each level. As a programme or module leader, or course designer, you should be familiar with these statements. Below is just one example of the way in which the descriptor level changes a similar outcome with increasing complexity as a student moves up levels.

Illustration of increasing coplexity within a similar module taught at different levels.


In the UK, in addition to generic statements about the abilities of graduates on completion of their programme of study at a given level, the QAA also coordinates experts from across institutions to draw up benchmark statements for individual discipline areas. This ensures that there is some degree of parity between say doing a history degree at the University of Hull and doing a history degree at Manchester University. These benchmarks are not overwhelming prescriptive, allowing institutions to provide distinct flavours to their qualifications, but it does mean that a future employer and the student themselves know broadly what is expected in any given discipline area. If you are a programme or module leader, you should ensure you are familiar with the relevant benchmark statement in your discipline.

Professional Standards

Many degrees are taught with specific professions in mind, such as business, architecture, law or health. These professions are heavily regulated and so degree programmes are very often required to conform to an external professional set of guidelines or standards.

One difficulty is that as the language of learning design has evolved, some of the professional standards are written in the language of ‘training’, using the term ‘competency’ without further clarification. In higher education, there is an ongoing debate, even between English-speaking countries, as to differentiate between competencies, attributes and outcomes.

In higher education, it can take some effort to interpret the standards into the language of ILOs. Very often it makes sense to simply reproduce the professional standards in your the Programme Handbook (and specification), to number them and provide a table that articulates where each professional competency or standard is met through a specific ILO.

What is clear is that very often the professional competency standards stress abilities that cannot be defined as ‘knowledge’ or intellectual skills (cognitive). Abilities such as teamwork (interpersonal) or ethical behaviour (affective) frequently feature. It is always worth exploring the options for embedding these abilities in your modules and I suggest if you write outcomes and assess these skills your students and their future employers will be grateful!

Progressive Taxonomies

I have already talked about active verbs and the use of five distinct taxonomies. I want to explain this in a little more but here is not the place. To find out about all five domains of learning I invite you to explore another area on this website listed under research labelled as Educational Taxonomies.


  • ILOs are best written in conjunction with colleagues. A team approach is strongly recommended. You may also want to include existing students in the process. It can be a valuable learning experience.
  • Make a list of what attributes you anticipate your module will deliver to students on successful completion. Don’t worry about the language at this stage, just make notes.
  • Work with others to define what style of an attribute you are describing. Is it a highly skilled practice (higher level psychomotor), or a definable body of knowledge that simply needs to be learnt (lower level metacognitive), or is it a teamwork or collaborative skill that’s intended (Interpersonal)? Try not to feel compelled to make everything an intellectual skill (cognitive) just because it is higher education and that is the current convention.
  • Even if you don’t ultimately use all the draft outcomes you come up with, try to write a couple for each of the five domains.

If you have a body of knowledge already in place, or are working with a prescribed curriculum, try writing your ILOs backwards. By this I mean you make a list of all the contexts of learning, then the subject of learning and then decide what you want the student to do.

Final Thought

Please do not copy and paste pre-existing ILOs into your documentation. You owe it to yourself and your students to design their learning.

Here are a few ‘poor’ ILOs I have worked to improve. Start each one with “on successful completion of this module, you will be able to….”

Poor ILOs 

(hard to meaningfully assess)

Good ILOs

(concise, flexible and assessable at the appropriate level)

Knowledge of the Napoleonic Code Articulate the scope and impact of the Napoleonic Code as it pertains to a specific code   (Interpersonal Level 5)
Understand Newton’s Third Law Demonstrate under experimental conditions Newton’s Third Law  (Psychomotor Level 5)
Understand why some religions condone the death penalty and some do not Justify two opposing positions with respect to a contentious practice on the basis of faith (Affective Level 6)
Use SPSS as a beginner Perform foundational activities using a specialist quantitative analysis software programme. (Psychomotor Level 4)

The poor ILOs are nearly impossible to meaningfully assess as they are written. They would require significant recontextualizations otherwise a student could say, “yeah, I know what the Napoleonic Code is thanks…” The rewritten ILO sets the level through an appropriate active verb, ‘articulate‘, sets the specific subject, ‘scope and impact of the Napoleonic Code‘ and the context which is flexible stating deliberately ‘a specific code‘ rather than referring explicitly to property, family, individual rights and so on. This allows faculty to refocus learning without redefining their outcomes.

I invite you to identify whether my ‘good’ ILOs overcome the deficits of the ‘poor’ versions on the left. Feel free to leave a comment.

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