Crafting an inclusive curriculum: how to write programme learning outcomes

Crafting an inclusive curriculum involves aligning learning outcomes with graduate attributes and using inclusive design principles, active verbs and established frameworks

Lizzy Garner-Foy's avatar
1 May 2024
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It can be challenging to write programme-level learning outcomes that effectively communicate to students what they can expect to achieve across multiple courses. This article provides practical tips for crafting clear, concise learning outcomes that put graduate attributes and inclusive curriculum design at their core.

Start at the end

Graduate attributes are good starting points for thinking more broadly about how you would like your students to develop through their studies. They outline mindsets and behaviours that students can develop by the time they graduate from any degree programme.

Prioritising certain attributes such as “critical and reflective thinker” and “skilled communicator” can help to shape the learning outcomes for your programme. This ensures that the skills your students are assessed on feed into the development of these characteristics. Use the attributes as a driver for devising your learning outcomes and allow time to compare your finished ones against them. Checking that they align well will ensure that your degree programme contributes to shaping graduates in line with the university’s vision.

Be inclusive from the outset

Your programme should draw on inclusive design principles so that it represents a truly diverse range of voices, whatever the subject area. An inclusive curriculum is one “where all students’ entitlement to access and participate in a course is anticipated, acknowledged and taken into account”, write Hannah Morgan and Ann-Marie Houghton in Inclusive Curriculum Design in Higher Education: Considerations for effective practice across and within subject areas. Being truly inclusive means designing learning experiences that give all students an equal opportunity to flourish, regardless of differences in abilities or backgrounds, making the experience engaging and accessible to as many individuals as possible.

There are many things you can do to enable this. Here are a few examples taken from Mikel Hogan’s The Four Skills of Cultural Diversity Competence to get you thinking:

  • Diverse modes of learning – online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous – can give more students opportunities to contribute.
  • If some groups are under-represented in your subject area at present, could your virtual learning environment include case studies of relevant professionals from those under-represented backgrounds?
  • Early formative assessment is beneficial for all learners, but particularly for those who might be feeling less confident in their studies.
    Is the authorship of your reading lists as diverse as it could be?
  • Have you thought about where in your programme students will learn important capacities such as cross-cultural dialogue or how to avoid unconscious bias?

Use a framework

The Quality Assurance Agency’s Subject Benchmark Statements offer a framework for considering what should be taught in each subject area. You can search on its website to find out what’s expected in a degree programme in your subject area.

For example, the characteristics of a history degree include “questioning, exploration, debate and discovery through independent engagement with sources and scholarship”, so the learning outcomes should reflect these ideas in relation to specific, measurable tasks.

In Scotland, we refer to the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) for an outline of what’s expected at different levels of study. The framework allows you to compare qualifications by using the level of difficulty and number of credits awarded (where one SCQF credit point is approximately 10 hours of learning time). You can use the interactive SCQF framework to find out more about each level of study.

Be active, clear and concise

Programme aims typically communicate the long-term, broader objectives of a programme, whereas learning outcomes are measurable, specific and focused on student achievement. As students progress through university, you want to see that they are being asked to go into increasing depth to develop their skills.

Learning outcomes are most effective when expressed using active, behavioural verbs so that students understand clearly what is expected of them. Each category in Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised) contains useful verbs that you might want to use moving from more basic skills such as summarising and recalling, to more complicated ideas such as critiquing and planning.

A poor example of a learning outcome for BMus music: “Understand the cultural, sociological, and historical contexts of music.” Words such as “understand” and “appreciate” are common in learning outcomes, but you should avoid them if possible. An understanding or appreciation of a topic is impossible to measure, and someone without a music degree could argue that they understand the cultural contexts of music. Be specific and consider the active skills you want your students to develop.

A good example of a learning outcome in MSc Food Safety: “Critically evaluate food safety data by applying epidemiological and statistical methods, including data generation, collection, curation, backup, cleaning, analysis and communication.” This example draws on skills from the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and there is a lot of specific detail provided, which clearly outlines exactly what the students are expected to do.

When writing your own programme’s learning outcomes, begin by considering graduate attributes and inclusive design principles. Write in student-friendly language, be as clear and specific as you can be and use active verbs. If you are writing learning outcomes for an existing programme, remember to review any previous iterations, as you might need to build on the current learning outcomes in line with revisions being made to the programme.

Lizzy Garner-Foy is an instructional designer at the University of Edinburgh.

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