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Learning objectives and learning outcomes

In formal education, learning generally takes place within a predetermined framework where the specificity of outcomes at each stage increases towards the bottom of an educationla hierarchy (see figure below). As we have seen, it is also vital that there is alignment between the learning outcomes or objectives at each level, so that learning ‘makes sense’ in terms of the individual learner’s journey.


Levels diagram


For example, the GMC defines very broad goals or outcomes in the documentation that supports the training of medical students.

Tomorrow’s Doctors (2003, p. 8) states that in order to provide good clinical care, ‘graduates must be able to show that they can meet the following outcome: know about, understand and be able to apply and integrate the clinical, basic, behavioural and social sciences on which medical practice is based’.

The Quality Assurance Agency (for Higher Education) produces subject benchmarks for each subject discipline, including medicine (QAA, 2002), as well as defining a framework for programmes at undergraduate, masters and doctoral levels (QAA, 2001). And in Good Medical Practice, the GMC sets out the principles that form the basis of medical education at all levels. As well as defining the expectations of doctors in clinical practice, Good Medical Practice includes the roles of doctors as teachers, supervisors and appraisers: ‘If you are involved in teaching you must develop the skills, attitudes and practices of a competent teacher’ (2006, p. 14).

These overarching statements are interpreted and developed further by Royal Colleges and medical schools to generate curricula, often defined as broad outcomes, but which are then developed into much more specific outcomes or objectives at programme, course, module and unit level. These are often framed in terms of knowledge, clinical or professional skills/competencies and attitudes. For Foundation and Specialty Training programmes, learning outcomes may be defined in generic terms as well as more specifically relating to the clinical context and level.

For example the ‘Standards for training for the Foundation programme’ states that the overall Foundation curriculum must be implemented at local level through ‘a clear programme description that outlines how the competences, including general professional competences, will be covered in the placements and what evidence and information will inform a judgement about the performance of the trainee’ (PMETB and GMC, 2006, p. 7).

At the level of the individual teaching event, further specificity is required as the intended outcomes of a particular educational intervention, teaching or supervision session, are tailored to the needs of individual learners.

Learning outcomes or objectives can be seen as the building blocks of any learning programme or teaching/learning event, and also as one of the keys that help all aspects of a programme link together.

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