Module Design @GCU An overview and how to guide

Why is module design Important?

“Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works” - Steve Jobs

Effective module design is at the heart of meaningful learning and teaching experience. For teachers, understanding the importance of module design allows for greater creativity and control when developing learning activities. Taking time to consider all the elements of a module from aims, objectives, activities and assessment provides the backbone for an engaging student experience.

This resource provides practical support and guidance to support staff in the design or review of a module.

The resource is structured to allow easy access to:

  • essential information, definitions
  • links to further resources
  • GCU quality assurance and enhancement documentation
  • related CPD opportunities.

It also provides practical activities that can be undertaken either individually or as part of a group/team activity.

What is a module made of ?

It can be difficult to visualise the design of a module. All too often we don't make the time to actually think about the underlying design of a module. However, across all disciplines there are core elements every successful module should incorporate.

The module map below provides a useful visual overview of the key stages and relationships in module. All these elements are included in current GCU module descriptors. Taking the time to design your module will help module teams and module leaders to develop module quality documentation more easily and meaningfully.

Basic Module Map, adapted from Moon, 2012

Exploring the Module Map: level descriptors, aims and objectives

All degree programmes at GCU, and indeed across the Scottish sector, are aligned to the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).

The SCQF has 12 levels. Higher Education commences at SCQF Level 7 and moves through to Masters at SCQF Level 11 and Doctoral level at SCQF Level 12. T

The SCQF sets out expectations for the knowledge and skills that students should develop across the different levels of the Scottish education systems from schools to colleges and universities.

The different levels indicate the level of difficulty of a particular qualification.

The Level Descriptors outline the general outcomes of learning at SCQF levels under five broad headings:

  1. knowledge and understanding (mainly subject based);
  2. practice (applied knowledge and understanding);
  3. generic cognitive skills (e.g. evaluation, critical analysis);
  4. communication, numeracy and IT skills;
  5. autonomy, accountability and working with others.

The Descriptors allow broad comparisons to be made between qualifications and learning and allow learners, employers and the public in general to understand the range of skills and learning that should be achieved at each level.

The level of a qualification indicates the level of difficulty; the number of credit points indicates the length of time it takes to complete.

One SCQF credit point represents an average of 10 hours of learning time. So, for example, a 20 credit module should require 200 notional student effort hours.

Subject Benchmark Statements

Subject Benchmark Statements do not represent a national curriculum in a subject area. Rather, they allow for flexibility and innovation in programme design within an overall conceptual framework established by an academic subject community.” - QAA

Working closely with the higher education sector, the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) have published Subject Benchmark Statements for a range of disciplines.

The benchmark statements set out expectations about standards of degrees in a range of subject areas. They describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject.

You may find it useful to review the benchmark statement relating to your subject area before you start to (re) design a module and/or programme.

Module (learning) Aims

Learning (module) aims and learning outcomes are closely related but are not the same.

Learning Aims are broad statements of intent illustrating the overall purpose of a module.

Module (learning) aims are much broader than learning outcomes and should reflect the educational level of a module/programme. They do not need to be measurable but they should align with the appropriate educational level of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).

You can find out more about GCU awards and quality procedures in this overview presentation.

Learning Outcomes

What is a Learning Outcome?

a statement of what a student is expected to know, understand and be able to do at the end of a period of learning and how that learning is to be demonstrated. Learning outcomes are linked to the relevant level and since they should generally be assessable they should be written in terms of how the learning is represented." (Moon, 2002)

Learning outcomes describe desired student behaviour resulting from learning. They are more precise and describe in detail what it is that a successful learner will be able to do and know by the end of a specified part of a module.

Learning outcomes should be demonstrable and measurable. They are closely related to assessment criteria which provide the means of measuring the intended learning.

Moon (2002) provides a list of broader purposes of learning outcomes including:

  • They make it possible to be explicit about what is expected of the learner in terms of learning to be attained and the assessment.
  • They provide a means of indicating to learners the link between their learning and the manner in which learning is to be assessed.
  • They can provide an indication of the standards that the individual teacher or the higher education community expects of learners, particularly if the relationship of the learning outcomes to level descriptors is made explicit.
  • They are a good way of communicating the learning purpose that the module is intended to fulfill. They provide information to other teachers, students and employers (etc) and they can be used within marketing material.
  • They can be a useful tool for communication with external examiners.
  • The use of learning outcomes provides a means of judging and attaining consistency of volumes and standards of learning within and across institutions, particularly with regard to the same subject material.

How to Write Learning Outcomes

This section will show you some simple ways to help you write learning outcomes that actually are demonstrable and measurable - in other words getting students to extend their knowledge and skills in ways that map to the relevant levels of the SCQF.

Start with the end in mind. Before you start writing learning outcomes, think carefully about what is you want your students to do and be able to demonstrate. As students progress through a programme, the level of skills and knowledge increases in line with the SCQF.

As a rule of thumb, learning outcomes should consist of three parts:

Writing the Verb

Finding and using the right active verb is the key to writing meaningful learning outcomes.

Although it has been with us for a considerable time Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) is a useful starting point when considering the active verb for a learning outcome i.e. what level of knowledge or skills are expected? The taxonomy was updated in 2001

Bloom's revised taxonomy

This interactive version of the revised (2001) version of the taxonomy illustrates some exemplars of it being used. For some more verb inspiration you can also explore this Bloom's Taxonomy Verbs list.

Remember, learning outcomes should be short, unambiguous and to the point so that everyone (staff and students) has a shared understanding.

Using the 3 part rule should help you to write meaningful learning outcomes. You should try to avoid terms such as “appreciate”, “demonstrate”, “be familiar with” as they are unclear and difficult to measure.

Learning Outcomes Checklist:

  • Are there an appropriate number of learning outcomes? Do the learning outcomes contain any ambiguous terminology or jargon?
  • Can you identify an action verb for each and is the level appropriate?
  • Can you determine the context of the learning for each learning outcome?
  • Do the learning outcomes make it clear to the student what they will be able to do on completion of the module?
  • Are they measurable?
  • Do the learning outcomes map to the GCU Common Good Curriculum?

Remember a learning outcome needs to be much more specific than a module aim.

Find out more:

Designing Constructively Aligned Learning & Teaching Activities

What is constructive alignment?

Constructive alignment has two aspects. The 'constructive' aspect refers to what the learner does, which is to construct meaning through relevant learning activities. The 'alignment' aspect refers to what the teacher does, which is to set up a learning environment that supports the learning activities appropriate to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The key is that the components in the teaching system, especially the teaching methods used and the assessment tasks are aligned to the learning activities assumed in the intended outcomes . . . The learner is in a sense 'trapped', and finds it difficult to escape without learning what is intended should be learned." Biggs (2003)
Constructive Alignment

Although it may appear obvious that module aims, learning outcomes, learning activities and assessments are all related or aligned, the reality is that often there is a mismatch. This can happen for many reasons, including:

  • Learning outcomes, actual learning activities and assessments undertaken by students are developed at different times and sometimes by different people.
  • Changes to one stage not being thought through in relation to the other stages.
  • Assessments not designed to align with what learning outcomes are asking for.
  • Insufficient or no TLAs (teaching & learning activities) to support student learning of key knowledge/skills. As a result students are not prepared to undertake the assessments.

Successful alignment of module aims, learning outcomes, TLAs and assessments are fundamental to ensuring a consistent and successful student experience.

Alignment of learning outcomes, TLAs and assessment are also critical in terms of how you as the teacher can effectively deliver a successful student learning experience.

If the design of the module is not aligned then it almost certain that the students will not have a successful learning experience and this may be apparent through negative feedback in module evaluation. If you are new to teaching, teaching in a new area or to a new student audience this can undermine your confidence. Before you reflect on how to enhance your own practice it can be useful to review the design of a module in terms of it being constructively aligned. Some simple changes and realignment could have a significant impact on the overall student experience, and reassure you that it might not be your teaching approach that is the issue.

Making changes to learning outcomes or assessments may require approval by your Programme Board. The Quality Assurance and Enhancement Handbook gives guidance on the requirements when making minor and/or major changes to module design.

How to constructively align your module

So, how do you know if your module is constructively aligned?

Step 1: Learning outcomes and Assessment Tasks

Look at your module learning outcomes. Is the active verb being assessed?

You need to make sure that the active verb in your learning outcome is actually what will be assessed. Doing this should ensure that the assessment task will ask students to demonstrate the expected knowledge and/or skills necessary to achieve one or more of the set module learning outcomes.

NB You may find it useful to refer to our Writing Learning Outcomes activity to help you review your learning outcomes.

Step 2: Learning & Teaching Activities and Assessment Tasks

Thinking about the learning and teaching activities (LTAs) you have planned for the module, are they designed to support students to meet the assessment tasks?

For example, if an assignment task asks students to make a presentation and when you look at the the TLAs for the module there are activities which focus on developing effective presentation skills, then the module is aligned. If, on the other hand, there aren’t any activities that support developing presentation skills, then the module is not aligned.

NB You can use our Quick Planning Template to help to help you (re) design your LTAs.

Step 3: Assessment Tasks

When deciding on the number (and type) of assessments, your learning outcomes should act as the basis of how many skills or knowledge areas should be demonstrated in each assessment task.

Look at your module assessment tasks. Are they actually aligned to different skills and/or knowledge presentation?

If two assessments are measuring the same knowledge/skills/learning outcomes, you need to consider if they are distinct tasks. Perhaps they are actually a staged assessment; or are both assessments tasks really necessary?

Constructive Alignment Activity

Our constructive alignment activity provides a guide to support individuals and/or module teams to constructively align modules.

You can undertake this activity by yourself for your own reflection, however we would recommend that it be used as a group activity with module teams.

Suggested Time: 30 - 60 minutes.

What you will need:

Find out more

The resources below may also be of interest as you move forward with (re)designing your modules.

More guidance on developing modules, and staff CPD opportunities are available from the Academic Quality website and in the Staff Help tab in GCU Learn.

Developed by the Academic Development Team, Glasgow Caledonian University, June 2017 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

Created By
Sheila MacNeill


Created with images by distel2610 - "lego duplo build module macro close" • University of the Fraser Valley - "Learning Outcomes Project" • Vandy CFT - "Bloom's Taxonomy"