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Module/Programme Design and Approval

Constructive Alignment | Identifying Aims and Learning Outcomes | Writing Aims and Learning Outcomes | Module Approval | Programme Design and Approval | In Practice | Resources

Acknowledgement: Information in this section of the Toolkit has been adapted with permission from the Certificate in Learning and Teaching (CiLT).


Many academic staff may be given the task of either developing a new module or programme or modifying an existing one, and drawing on effective principles of curriculum design is essential in ensuring your module or programme supports student learning in your discipline. Designing modules that fit within the overall programme and clearly evidence what students will learn in your field will help to provide a coherent learning experience for your students.

In developing your module, it is important to be aware of the various influences that shape how your curriculum is designed within the programme of studies, including:

  • Personal, e.g. subject knowledge; personal research interests
  • Institutional, e.g. Departmental and Institutional Learning and Teaching Strategy (LTS); Students
  • Government Bodies, e.g. Quality Assurance Agency Benchmarks
  • External, e.g. professional bodies; employers

Constructive Alignment

In the higher education sector, constructive alignment as developed by Biggs (1999) is the underlying principle influencing contemporary approaches to curriculum design. In essence, the curriculum is shaped so that the teaching methods and assessment tasks align with the intended learning outcomes.

Go to the Higher Education Academy website for a comprehensive overview of Constructive Alignment

In response to constructive alignment, it is current practice to describe curricula in terms of learning outcomes rather than subject knowledge. This provides context for students about why they need to know something, what they need to know and how they will need to know it. The focus is therefore on what students will learn, rather than on what you will teach.

One of the first steps in the process of module or programme design is deciding at what level you want your students to engage with subject content or skills. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (1956, updated 2001) is an especially useful tool in understanding the role of different educational activities and how they fit in the spectrum, from lower order thinking skills such as recalling information to higher order thinking skills such as generating new ideas:

Blooms Taxonomy

Bloom’s (new) Taxonomy of Learning adapted from Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001.

It is expected that a broad range of these skills would be acquired across an entire programme, although individual modules may focus on more specific knowledge or skills depending on the discipline or academic level. The University of Sheffield focus on creating independent and critical learners and the more general focus in Higher Education on active learning means academic staff are increasingly looking for opportunities for students to engage with higher level learning activities.

Bloom's Taxonomy has been adapted by a number of institutions to help them focus on curriculum design:

Iowa State University - Learning Objectives - click to enlarge

Iowa State University’s Model of learning objectives adapted from A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (click on image to enlarge).

Go to Modes of Teaching for more information on promoting active learning.

Identifying Aims and Learning Outcomes

When designing a programme or module the first question to ask is

What is it expected that participants should be able to do when they have completed the programme or module?

The answer can be used to develop a clear aim and a set of learning outcomes. While the aim gives an overall aspiration of what should be achieved from the point of view of the tutor, the learning outcomes state specifically what students will be able to do once they have completed the module. For example:


Aim: This unit aims to provide an introductory overview of different theories of property and property law

Learning outcome: Apply the mechanisms for the creation, protection and transfer of property right recognised in the law of England and Wales (Law)


Aim: This unit aims to provide a nuanced understanding of one or more contemporary issues in a regional context

Learning outcome: Critically interrogate a range of primary and secondary sources relevant to contemporary issues in the region (East Asian Studies)

Go to the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University for further examples of aims and learning outcomes.

Setting Learning Outcomes:

  • Makes it easier to measure whether the desired learning has taken place
  • Guides your choice of learning materials and activities
  • Can help students to make an informed decision about programme and module choices
  • Starts a relationship of trust and transparency between teacher and students
  • Is part of the E1 form needed for new module planning and approval
  • Establishes clear criteria of assessment that is understood by students
  • Enables you to evaluate the learning and assessment methods used

The same process is followed when identifying aims and learning outcomes for individual sessions within a module.

Writing Aims and Learning Outcomes

The test for a valid learning outcome is whether it can be observed or measured in some way.

A useful formula to follow is: 'By the end of this [module or programme] students will be able to [action word] in [context]'

Your choice of action word will depend on your subject matter and the knowledge or skills that students will acquire. As noted above, Bloom's Taxonomy can help you to describe the appropriate level of learning. Suitable verbs might include:

Agree Describe Exercise Present
Analyse Design Explain Produce
Apply Detail Explore Recognise
Carry out Derive Generate Report
Change Develop Identify Risk assess
Choose Discuss Introduce Share
Commit Elicit List Transform
Create Establish Plan Turn
Demonstrate Evaluate Practice Use

This is by no means an exhaustive list as the following examples show:

By the end of this module/programme students will be able to...

...rearrange formulae containing common mathematical functions (Maths)
...analyse historiographical arguments relating to the outbreak of World War I (History)
...ask for and give instructions, advice, clarifications and explanations (Modern Languages)
...access and appraise empirical data concerning health inequalities (Health)
...identify and detect the muscles of the human neck and face (Anatomy)
...present details of design and experimental evaluation in the form of a technical report to a standard that a suitable qualified person could use to obtain similar findings. (Engineering)

Worth Considering:
Beware of 'know,' 'understand' and 'be aware of.' They are difficult to measure.

'A learning outcome which requires the student to 'know' something can be readily translated into a learning outcome which describes an action: describing, or listing, or reciting, as appropriate'
Baume, D (2013) First Words on Teaching and Learning - free e-book can be accessed here

The same is true of learning outcomes containing other non-action verbs, such as 'understand' or 'be aware of.

Links to teaching and learning activities and assessment tasks

Once you have the aims and learning outcomes for your module or programme, you can then go about identifying teaching activities that will help students to achieve the learning outcomes.

Further information about what these teaching activities might entail can be found in the Modes of Teaching and Modes of Learning sections.

Worth considering
When designing your teaching and learning activities, remember they don't all have to take place through face-to-face teaching:

  • Resource lists can provide an opportunity for students to engage in independent study outside of timetabled hours.
  • MOLE can also be used to set quizzes and promote interaction between students outside of the classroom.
  • You may wish to encourage students to engage in reflective learning beyond their scheduled contact time.

It is important that the Intended Learning Outcomes should be understandable and achievable by students and measurable by assessors. Learning outcomes and teaching and learning activities should also be aligned with means of assessment to ensure that they are valid and reliable.

Go to Assessment

In summary, when developing your module or programme:

  • ask yourself what you want your students to learn and what is the best way for them to learn it
  • plan your learning activities to achieve the learning outcomes
  • use a structure that will encourage you and your students to engage in active learning with clear aims and learning outcomes showing what students will be able to do by the end of the module
  • consider the attributes of the Sheffield Graduate and how they are reflected in your curriculum

Module approval

Each department has its own procedures for module approval. In developing your module, speak with your departmental module/programme leader, head of year or your Director of Teaching for guidance on departmental processes and to discuss your ideas. They are your first points of call in developing modules and can help you take a holistic approach to curriculum design by having a complete picture of where the module fits in the overall context.

Once the module has been approved within your own department, it needs to be approved by your Faculty. Your LeTS Faculty contact can offer guidance on the processes and procedures involved.

Go to Module Approval for information on the approval processes and policies

Go to LeTS Faculty Support Team

Programme Design and Approval

Constructive Alignment is also a key aspect of programme design. An explicit awareness of alignment and a description of teaching and learning methods with clear programme learning outcomes and assessment methods will be required as part of the approval process.

Go to Programme Design and Approval for details on processes and procedures and Reference Points for the Development of New Programmes.


Having a broader knowledge of the content and approaches to teaching by colleagues can help inspire the development of new modules.

  • Example: Modules - how to introduce a new one and how to make changes to an existing one

The School of Law’s staff handbook includes the approval procedures for new Law modules.

Dr Paula Meth, Department of Town and Regional Planning

The Department of Town and Regional Planning organises an information-sharing session for all module tutors. Module leaders speak to each other about what they teach, allowing colleagues to make connections to other modules. They also learn more about colleagues' delivery by adding each other to their MOLE courses.

  • Example: Handover meetings

The Department of Computer Science has “handover” meetings for all staff teaching a year group in Semester 1 to meet with staff taking over the teaching for Semester 2. This has proved to be a highly effective way of exchanging information.

Kevin Poppelwell and Jane Spooner, School of Health and Related Research

The School of Health and Related Research (SCHARR) completely reviewed and overhauled how it communicated programme and module information to students. Practically, this meant revising Module Outline leaflets provided for new students, and the publication of this information for applicants and offer holders to inform module choice.

  • Example: Using Reading Lists to promote independent learning

Amy Collins, The University Library

Amy has been doing some work around how to structure reading lists at different levels of study to support the development of independent literature searching and information literacy skills across the duration of a programme. This is particularly important for programmes that include projects and dissertations or students who wish to go onto postgraduate study. Anyone interested in contributing to this work should contact Amy directly.


Bullet Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning Teaching and Assessment to Curriculum Objectives, (Learning and Teaching Support Network)

Bullet Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University, (SRHE and Open University Press, Buckingham)

Bullet Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the classification of educational goals Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: Longmans.

Bullet Anderson, L.W. (Ed.), Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.) et al. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Complete edition). New York: Longman.

Bullet Quality Assurance Agency Subject Benchmark Statements

Bullet HEA Subject Centre

Bullet Constructive Alignment, HEA

Bullet Constructive Alignment Explained, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).
This site includes a comprehensive audio broadcast by Dr. W. Rod Cullen contextualising constructive alignment and its impact in curriculum design.

Bullet Curriculum Design, Teaching and Learning Support Office, University of Manchester.
This site offers some suggested readings in key areas of curriculum design.

Bullet Course Planning Cards, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Planning cards can be used in a number of ways by individuals developing a specific module or by course teams.

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Comments or suggestions - contact

See also:

Learning and Teaching Services Processes and Policies:

Module Approval

Programme Approval

Curriculum Review

Other pages

Sheffield Graduate

Support for Resource Lists

Online Prospectus FAQs