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Education Quality and Policy Office


This section outlines what is meant by the terms 'aims' and 'learning outcomes' and how they relate to course delivery and assessment.

On this page:

Educational aims of the provision

The aims of a course should represent the intentions of the teacher. They should:

  • encapsulate the purpose of the course and what the institution is trying to achieve in providing it;
  • indicate the audience for whom the course is intended, or the kind of career or future study for which it might be designed;
  • state whether the course is broad-based or taught as a series of specialised options, and explain the rationale. It is the kind of statement that might go into a prospectus to advertise the course.


Students and prospective students need an accurate account of course content in order to enable them to decide whether the course will be appropriate for their interests and choices.

The curriculum for any course should reflect the aims of the provision and the skills and knowledge that students are expected to acquire during the course. The curriculum must support:

  • the aims of a course in providing a student with a thorough grounding in the basics of a subject;
  • the learning outcomes of the course for students to acquire in depth knowledge of a specialised topic where appropriate. This need not necessarily be through a lecture course; it could be a subject dealt with in supervisions or by dissertation.

Why articulate aims?

An institution should have reflected on the aims of the courses which it provides, and articulated those aims clearly both to students (in course materials) and also to the outside world through its programme specifications.

Aims articulated should:

  • enable prospective students, their advisers, and External Examiners to understand the ethos and purpose of the course;
  • provide the institution and internal review committees with a benchmark against which to consider whether courses are meeting their purpose;
  • represent the intentions of the teacher, (whereas outcomes are concerned with the achievements of the learner).

At what level should aims be set?

Aims can be set at any level: for the entire Tripos or MPhil, part of the Tripos, or a major subdivision such as a module, option or paper. In the publicly available programme specifications they are normally given at the level of the award. Internally, institutions may think it useful to articulate aims at other levels, and individuals may wish to set out the aims for their own courses. Aims within any one area of provision must remain consistent.

An example would be:

"The Journalism Tripos is a three year course which is designed to provide students with a thorough grounding in all major fields of journalistic knowledge. It offers the opportunity in the second year to undertake a field project in a national or international media organisation, and in the third to specialise in an area of journalism on which the department has significant research strength. Depending on the exact route taken through the course, it aims to prepare students for careers in the media professions, teaching, and research, while also remaining broad-based enough to enable graduates to enter a variety of careers unrelated to journalism. It aims to provide not only subject-related knowledge skills but also research, study and personal skills."

This describes the aims of a large area of provision (a Tripos) and so the aims are expressed in broad and general terms; the smaller the unit of teaching provision, the more specific the aims are likely to become.

Learning outcomes: knowledge and skills

The learning outcomes tell students and prospective students the kinds of knowledge that they will be given the opportunity to acquire during the course.

Learning outcomes are:

  • distinct from programme or course aims since they are concerned with the achievements of the learner, rather than the intentions of the teacher;
  • included in the programme specification at the level of award (e.g. the Tripos, MPhil) or at a major subdivision (Part of the Tripos, MPhil option).

Individual teaching officers will also be able to articulate them for specific lecture courses. These will normally be publicised to students through course materials.

Why articulate learning outcomes?

Drawing up and articulating learning outcomes:

  • promotes the development of a coherent learning programme;
  • helps to guide students through the programme;
  • enables an institution to demonstrate how a particular lecture course or paper contributes to the overall aims of its teaching.

Learning outcomes and reference points

The kinds of skills and knowledge that students are expected to acquire should also reflect any internal and external reference points that might be applicable.

For example, a professional body may require the acquisition of certain knowledge in order to accredit a course; or the national benchmark statement for a subject may give advice about the kinds of skills which a student would be expected to have.

Learning outcomes and transferable skills

The University encourages students to acquire transferable skills, and the General Board expects faculties, departments and Colleges to provide opportunities for students to acquire these skills. When designing courses, institutions are expected to bear the importance of such skills in mind, though University policy does not require them to be formally or directly assessed.

The Postgraduate Committee also co-ordinates a Transferable Skills Training programme for postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers, providing advice to faculties, departments and Colleges, central support and relevant external links.


  • Learning outcomes should be taken into account when designing the assessment for a course, ensuring that the mode chosen is appropriate for the learning outcome.
  • Articulating the learning outcomes should also allow appropriate marking criteria to be drawn up, and give examiners and students insight into those criteria as they are applied to specific assessments.

For further information see the page on assessment practices and procedures.

Learning outcomes: example 

Learning outcomes are usually clearer to students if that are written in the form "At the end of the course students will be expected to have..."

For example,

 "At the end of the first year, students taking the Biology option will be expected to have:

  • acquired a general knowledge of the principles and mechanisms underlying cell biology, animal physiology, genetics, ecology, animal behaviour, reproduction and development;
  • acquired a basic knowledge of physics and chemistry sufficient to understand the physical and chemical bases of biological subjects taught in the course;
  • acquired the ability to use mathematical and statistical techniques relevant to the biological subjects taught;
  • carried out practical work related to the biological subjects above, and produced word-processed reports of that work;
  • spent a minimum of 4 days on supervised field trips in the local area, becoming familiar with the ecology and climate of the area and with the procedures and equipment used for ecological investigation;
  • spent a minimum of one week on placement in a local school, company or commercial laboratory shadowing personnel engaged in biological teaching or research and appreciated the day-to-day planning and time-management required for such activities;
  • given one presentation in a seminar of peers, including the use of visual aids;
  • acquired the skills to use library and internet resources independently."

Again, the smaller the unit of teaching provision, the more specific the learning outcomes are likely to be.

The QAA offers further advice on Subject Benchmark Statements.

Achieving learning outcomes

An institution will want to know whether a course's learning outcomes are being achieved. This will be apparent from the results of assessment and reports of External Examiners.

Many institutions review Tripos results or other statistics annually to determine whether there are trends in achievement, and if so whether they require further investigation. This, coupled with student feedback and annual review of courses, may enable institutions to assess whether the learning outcomes are appropriate, and allow consideration of increased support or revision of the course.

Faculties and departments have access to various kinds of data, some of which is published by the University, for example:

  • Undergraduates: Statistics of applications and acceptances (Reporter Special, published December);
  • Class Lists (Reporter Special, published July);
  • Student numbers (Reporter Special, published August);
  • Data on submission rates for doctoral students;
  • Graduate destination information produced by the Careers Service.

Much of this information is brought together on the CamDATA website, which provides information and statistics about the University's courses.

Further information concerning the data available centrally may be obtained from the Planning and Resource Allocation Office of the Academic Division.

Institutions may also have in-house data, such as level of use of facilities, as well as detailed information about Tripos or MPhil results. Care should always be exercised in retaining data for statistical purposes so that the provisions of the Data Protection Act are not infringed. Guidance on this can be obtained from the University's Information Compliance Office.