An Outcomes-based Approach to Higher Education

An outcomes-based approach to education clearly specifies what students are expected to learn and arranges the curriculum such that these intended outcomes are achieved (Harden, 2007). Learning outcomes provide the base for an effectively aligned and integrated curriculum, where instructional activities and assessment strategies are explicitly linked to course-specific and degree-level learning outcomes, which are tied to institutional and provincially-defined graduate degree level expectations (DLEs).

Learning outcomes provide a powerful framework upon which to structure curricula. According to Harden et al., (1999; 2007a) learning outcomes:

  • help to provide clarity, integration and alignment within and between a sequence of courses;
  • promote a learner-centred approach to curriculum planning;
  • encourage a self-directed and autonomous approach to learning, as students can take responsibility for their studies, and are able to actively gauge their progress;
  • promote a collegial approach to curriculum planning, as instructors collaborate to identify gaps and redundancies,
  • ensure that decisions related to the curriculum and learning environment are streamlined;
  • foster a philosophy of continual monitoring, evaluation and improvement; and,
  • help to ensure accountability and assure quality of our education programs.

An aligned curriculum organizes structures and sequences courses around the intended learning outcomes. In order for this approach to succeed, learning outcomes must must be: 1) clearly articulated in a way that is contextualized within the discipline; 2) communicated broadly; 3) used to inform and influence decisions about the curriculum; and, 3) monitored regularly to ensure that they remain current and accurately reflect the intent of the degree program (Manogue and Brown, 2007; Harden, 2007).

It is hard to argue with an outcomes-based approach to education.  Starting with a clear goal of what one wants to achieve seems extraordinarily logical, even when situated within the inherent complexities of higher education!  What is clear is that an outcomes-based approach requires a clear focus on continuous quality improvement.


Harden, R.M., Crosby, J.R., and Davis, M.H. 1999. AMEE Guide No. 14: Outcome-based education: Part 1 – An introduction to outcome-based education.  Medical Teacher 21(1): 7-15

Harden, R.M., Crosby, J.R., and Davis, M.H. 1999. AMEE Guide No. 14: Outcome-based education: Part 1 – An introduction to outcome-based education.  Medical Teacher 21(1): 7-15

Harden, R.M. 2002. Learning outcomes and instructional objectives: is there a difference? Medical Teacher 24(2):151-155.

Harden, R.M. 2007a.  Outcomes-based education: the future is today.  Medical Teacher 29:625-629.

Harden, R.M. 2007b. Outcome-based education – the ostrich, the peacock and the beaver. Medical Teacher 29: 666-671.

Manogue, M. and Brown, G. 2007.  Managing the curriculum – for a change.  European Journal of Dental Education 11: 75-86.


Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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