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Designing Statements of Purpose and Programme Learning Outcomes

This page provides guidance on the following aspects of Programme Design:

    • Programme specifications (PDDs)
    • How to write Programme Statements of Purpose
    • How to write Programme Learning Outcomes
    • Programme-level Assessment

This aims to support Departmental staff when developing new programmes using the University’s frameworks for Programme Design, or when engaging in modifications to existing programmes. The guidance is underpinned by the principles of the York Pedagogy and UTC guidance on programme specifications. The Programme Design and Learning Technology team provides advice to Departmental contacts such as Chairs of Boards of Studies, Chairs of Teaching Committees, VLE coordinators, programme and module leaders, and Departmental and Programme Support Staff via the following email address: programme-design@york.ac.uk / vle-support@york.ac.uk.  

We can provide advice on any of the aspects covered on this page. For example:

    • Developing Statements of purpose and programme learning outcomes with the aim of ensuring that they are consistent and student facing, that they focus on activity as well as content, and that they provide a clear 'big picture' overview of what a student will get out of the programme.
    • The staging of teaching, learning and assessment through the different levels of the programme.
    • Assessment options and alignment between module and programme level assessment.

Programme Specifications (PDDs)

At the University, programme specifications are developed and recorded using programme design documents. These provide an overview of a programme, its intended aims and learning outcomes, and the means by which the outcomes will be assessed at the module level. PDDs are produced annually for all taught programmes at all levels to describe the definitive programme structure and requirements that a particular cohort will follow. While the principal use of PDDs is for quality assurance purposes, they contain information which may be of interest to current, former and prospective students and should be written with these audiences in mind. 

It is advisable to review programme specification on a regular basis to ensure that they are current and that any changes made at a modular level are reflected in the PDD.

 

Statements of Purpose

The statement of purpose (SOP) should be a concise student-facing summary of the nature of the degree programme such that anyone reading it is clear why the programme exists (purpose) and what makes it worth undertaking (value). It should be an expression of the shared understanding of the nature of the degree agreed by all those engaged in its design and teaching. In expressing this shared understanding, the SOP provides a useful function not only as a starting point for marketing the programme to students, but as a focal point for programme design and modification. A well developed SOP provides the kernel of information from which the Programme Learning Outcomes and other elements of the PDD can be developed. 

The statement can be approached in a number of ways. One possible approach is to briefly outline the scope and relevance of the discipline or subject area and then clarify why studying the subject at the University of York is worth considering. Aspects to consider in developing an applicant-facing Statement of Purpose include:

Distinctiveness

What distinctive aspects of the programme can be highlighted in the SoP? Examples might include:

  • The department’s research profile and connections to current research carried out by programme staff; 

  • The particular subject foci and skills development offered within the programme;

  • Distinctive approaches to teaching which support active student learning (eg Problem-Based Learning);

  • Connections to accreditation from professional bodies or links to national or international qualification frameworks.

Value

Pinning down the precise aims of a degree programme in a statement can serve to make explicit that which is too often implicit; ie exactly what the teaching, learning, student work and assessment activities are designed for. Such a statement can make clear what students will gain from completing this particular programme and therefore why the programme is worthwhile. It can also provide students with an overarching ‘mission statement’ for their own use as they progress through the programme, for example for motivation, planning and self-assessment purposes. This can help to contextualise the Programme Learning Outcomes and guide students towards an understanding of what they will need to do to succeed as well as to support an understanding of how the programme develops through its stages and the outcomes that the modules and their assessments ultimately lead to.

Expectations

A statement which outlines the learning demands and challenges that will occur during the programme can be valuable in clarifying level expectations for students and in providing them with an incentive to engage. They should capture a sense of attractive challenge. 

Graduate-ness

The Statement can be valuable in clarifying the utility of the programme for prospective students, their advisors, their parents, the programme team and employers.

Shared understanding 

Defining and regularly reviewing the overarching purpose of a degree programme can strengthen the shared understanding of the programme among staff and therefore contribute to clarifying standards and expectations for students and staff engaged in the programme. 

 

Examples

Below are some examples drawn from various Departments, which show different approaches. Further examples can be found on the student-facing Programme Design Documents page.  

BA Archeology and Heritage

At York, we are proud to be at the forefront of archaeological research and innovative teaching, employing a wide range of teaching methods and assessments. Our range of expertise truly covers the whole of the human past from the very beginnings of prehistory to contemporary archaeology. The BA in Archaeology and Heritage degree reflects the multidisciplinary nature of our subject, incorporating aspects of the humanities, sciences and social sciences important for careers both within the heritage sector and beyond. Developed in response to demand within the growing and significant heritage sector, this is a challenging and socially important degree programme, as well as being an attractive general degree. This degree course combines depth of knowledge about the human past with an informed and practical understanding of what that knowledge represents in contemporary society, and how it can best be managed for the future: in short, why the past matters, and to whom. As well as engaging with key themes and debates in archaeology, students are trained in the hard skills entailed by data generation and analysis; in the design and execution of both independent and team projects; and in the presentation of ideas to public and professional audiences through written, visual, and oral forms of presentation, using a range of digital applications. This degree programme provides students with a range of highly transferrable skills required by graduates for future employment and our graduates have gone into careers in diverse areas such as archaeology and heritage, law, local government planning, chartered surveying and land management, accountancy and financial services, teaching and the police and civil service. The city of York itself has a rich heritage and we have strong links with historic museums, archives, visitor attractions, archaeological resources and professional expertise. A variety of hands-on practical based experience is offered, including participation in field-based, heritage practice project linked to an excavation in the Yorkshire region in addition to a choice of wide ranging specialised skills relevant for heritage practice in the discipline. Our hallmark is small group teaching with approachable, friendly staff which generates our strong sense of community. 

BA Philosophy

Philosophers investigate fundamental questions about reality, experience, thought, and value. Studying philosophy involves getting to grips with deep and difficult problems and trying to find answers, engaging constructively with the ideas of others and developing your own. It combines imagination and creativity (in coming up with potential solutions) with sharp critical reasoning (in evaluating the options through systematic logical argument). Philosophy is a distinctive discipline which subjects fundamental ideas and principles to critical scrutiny and carefully maps out the possible views on particular issues with care and precision. Over the course of the programme you’ll grow intellectually and develop skills in reasoning, creative problem solving, and communication that have wide applicability outside the discipline.

The department offers a wide selection of modules covering topics from ethics to metaphysics, Aristotle to Nietzsche, philosophy of art to logic, philosophy of Christianity to philosophy of Science. (Specific module selection will vary from year to year.) Our academic staff are committed to teaching: friendly and open, enthusiastic about discussing philosophy with students, and constantly exploring new ways to enrich the learning experience. Staff are active in research—developing new ideas and presenting them in journal articles and books—and their engagement with cutting-edge philosophical debates brings richness and excitement to lectures and seminars.

The programme is designed to introduce you to a wide range of debates and approaches and develop your skills and abilities step by step, supporting you as you face increasingly difficult intellectual challenges. In your first year, you’ll sample the main areas of philosophy and work on key skills: reading and reflecting on texts that address fascinating questions and mind-stretching puzzles; discussing ideas and laying out arguments; and developing your writing so you can present ideas and arguments clearly and accurately in useful ways. In your second year, you’ll develop breadth of knowledge and understanding in a number of key areas of philosophy, building up a stock of ideas and approaches you can apply to new problems, and you’ll do more advanced work on writing, learning how to structure extended, in-depth discussions of difficult problems. You'll also have an opportunity to work with a group of students to prepare a podcast tackling a contemporary issue from a philosophical perspective. In your third year, you’ll take research-led modules, working alongside staff as they work on new ideas and try to tackle cutting-edge questions, and do your own independent work, investigating an issue or issues that fascinate you.

Completing the programme successfully will equip you with a powerful range of skills and abilities, putting you in a position to think in a creative and systematic way about new problems, and communicate your ideas clearly and forcefully; it will also enrich your thinking and develop your sense of curiosity and wonder at the world and our place in it.

BEng Electronic Engineering

BEng Electronic Engineering (H610 (3-year))

BEng Electronic Engineering (with a year in industry) (H611 (4 -year 2-1-1))

The electronics industry has revolutionised life in the last few decades, and continues to push the boundaries of the physical world to produce faster, more powerful and more cost-effective technologies that enable products such as personal computers, mobile phones and the Internet. This programme provides a solid core of knowledge in the discipline, allowing students to choose specialist options for deeper study later in the degree, providing considerable flexibility for you to develop your subject-specific knowledge according to your own developing interests. Electronics is an exciting and fascinating world of large-scale projects with ever-increasing demands for solutions and innovation. To succeed in such an environment, graduates need to be knowledgeable, highly-skilled, professional and adept at communication and project management.

Drawing on the expertise of the teaching and research staff at York, and including individual and group projects at every stage of the degree to develop practical, organisational, management and business skills, this programme will provide you with precisely the abilities and approaches you will need to operate with confidence – as a designer, operator or manager - in the challenging world of Electronics. As with all our undergraduate degrees, the BEng Electronic Engineering is fully accredited by the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

MEng Computer Science

This programme produces highly competent graduates who are equipped to become leaders in computer science with a specialism in embedded real-time systems, and who understand the implications of their work both for themselves and for society as a whole. Through the programme, you will see two integrated strands of work which help you to develop both your computational thinking abilities and your skills as an engineer. It is the combination of these two areas that will make you attractive to employers, enabling you to make an immediate contribution when you move into employment. The programme will provide you with a solid foundation in the principles and practices of computer science and embedded systems, including coding, mathematics and basic engineering; with breadth in computer science and embedded systems; and with advanced training in focussed areas of your choice covering topics such as the theory, modelling, design and implementation of embedded real-time systems. You will understand engineering trade-offs that cross disciplines, for example between hardware and software, and you will be able to participate effectively in multidisciplinary teams. You will also develop the skill to contribute professionally to solving complex commercial and industrial engineering problems.

By choosing the Integrated Masters (MEng) programme, rather than a Bachelors (BSc/BEng), you will have the opportunity to study a larger number of advanced optional modules, allowing a broader exploration of the discipline, and to work on a larger final-year project, enabling greater depth of independent study in an area that you have chosen yourself.

MSc. Social Media and Interactive Technologies

Social media are radically transforming the world we live in. Nowhere is this more profound than in the relations between humans and emergent media and technologies. How we relate to new media, technologies and devices is at the heart of how they are coming to change our lives. Understanding how technologies and social media implicate human activities, practices and behaviours is crucial to formulating responses, articulating ideas of the future and being active within the reshaping of the way we live today. It is this reshaping of our everyday lives at the level of our interactions with these media and interactive technologies that this programme seeks to help you understand. The combination of modules on social media and those on interactive technologies, will tell you not only about the transformative power of media, it will also match this with a detailed understanding of the interactive technologies that facilitate the spread and integration of those media forms. Operating on a global scale, social media are central to the functioning of new types of capitalism and are rapidly reshaping organisations, brands and consumption. Understanding social media is key to understanding the changes that we continue to experience. Social Media and Interactive Technologies combines two vital area of knowledge for contemporary professionals in the fields of media, research and technology design. As a Social Media and interactive Technologies student, you will learn to combine a critical social science understanding of relevant social, economic, cultural and political factors, by applying social theory, concepts and evidence. You will develop a deep appreciation of user-centered practices and processes as you progress as a student within the fields of both sociology and computer science. As a graduate of the programme you will be prepared for a range of careers in the commercial, voluntary, and policy sectors, including technology design, policy research, and social inclusion advocacy. You will be in a position to contribute distinctive interdisciplinary knowledge and skills, such as socially sensitive application design, to an emerging and vibrant social media landscape and shape the future of that area through evidence based decisions that benefit members of society. 

MA in History of Art (British Art)

The MA in History of Art, with the Pathway in British Art, is a degree that offers you a unique programme of exceptional historical and geographical breadth and depth, ranging from the Anglo-Saxon period to the most recent Turner Prize. You will have the opportunity to study in the largest and most vibrant community of scholars and curators of British Art in the world. Variety and rigor are the programme's distinctive features, allowing you to consider the category of British Art critically and to investigate how it mobilises questions of national and political identity, problematising the role of the arts in the construction of national, imperial, and global cultures. You have choice of a wide range of modules, giving you the opportunity to study British Art chronologically, to focus on one media, to pursue a particular methodological perspective, or to consider the art of another region comparatively, leading to the production of supervised essays and a dissertation at the forefront of scholarly research. Through the MA, you will be able to bring together research questions and sources from different approaches to hone your skills in visual and material analysis in order to understand how British and related artworks produce meaning, in the past as well as today. This is accompanied by extensive provision skills training in academic writing, archival research, and object-focused studying. The "core" Research Skills module will introduce you to some key issues of British art, such as the role of childhood in Victorian painting or the politics of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Through the other "optional" modules, you will encounter a wide range of of evidence and approaches. As part of the Pathway in British Art, you will be part of a world-class scholarly environment that includes seminars, reading groups, research lectures and field trips, many of which are developed with our regional and national museum partners (in particular with Tate Britain). This offering will enable you to develop essential research skills, and the ability to explore and solve problems independently. Being in York gives you access to some of the most important British collections and cultural heritage, including four National Trust and English Heritage sites in the city alone, as well as the unparalleled collections of the York Museums Trust. You will have also the opportunity to engage with curators and conservators from the wider region, with whom we regularly collaborate and have partnership arrangements, such as the twelve great houses of the Yorkshire Country House Partnership, and the award-winning institutions that make up the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. By undertaking the MA in History of Art, you will develop skills which will prepare you for further PGR study, and to seek employment in a wide range of professions, including in archives, libraries, museums, galleries, publishing companies, the media, education, the heritage sector and the art market, in the UK and beyond.

 

Programme Learning Outcomes

Programme Learning Outcomes should be consistent with the key points within the Statement of Purpose. For each programme, there is a requirement to define six to eight programme learning outcomes (PLOs). The following checklist for the development of PLOs provides guidance for use when developing or reviewing PLOs:

1. Are the PLOs expressed as something graduates will be able to do rather than what subjects students will cover? Does the expression of each PLO follow syntactically from the stem ‘Graduates will be able to…’ 

2. Do the PLOs place the primary focus on action or abilities rather than on states of being? 

For example:

Graduates will be able to… “design complex systems using knowledge of...” 

rather than

Graduates will be able to “understand / appreciate / recognise / demonstrate... and use this knowledge to engage in design”.

3. (Connected to 1 and 2) Can the PLO be summatively assessed?

4. Does the expression of the PLOs suggest abilities relevant to non-academic application, as well as academic application?

For example:

Graduates will be able to… “collate and manage statistical and complex data in order to support presented arguments”. 

rather than

Graduates will be able to “incorporate evidence into essays”.

5. Are the PLOs expressed in a manner which is accessible (eg not too much jargon, not too wordy and not too clause-heavy)? 

For example:

Graduates will be able to “conduct focussed research projects through rigorous planning and the application of appropriate principles, methodologies and approaches”. 

rather than

Graduates will be able to “bring together primary (and secondary, if necessary) material and develop appropriate, relevant methodologies for interpretative purposes, and consult significant source materials and expert consultants and manage data in order to define and initiate original, independent, investigative research, from beginning to end”.

6. Are the PLOs specific enough to suggest the value in terms of skill that a graduate will bring - not generic, bland or vague. 

For example:

Graduates will be able to “present information to professionals and clients with precision, clarity and discretion” 

rather than

Graduates will be able to … “communicate well, orally and in writing”.

7. Are the PLOs appropriate in terms of ambition and clarifying how the programme will stretch the students? 

This relates to 

a) the level indicated by the PLOs 

Please refer to guidance in appendix VI (Guidance on Credit Level Descriptors) of the Framework for Programme Design UG and PG

b) the range of skills which students will develop during the programme. PLOs should highlight the range of different abilities mastered by students over the entire programme.

8. Do the identified PLOs highlight skills that can be progressively developed from a basic skill to a higher, more complex, more valued level of engagement? Is this clear from the PLO? What is the standard that will be expected? 

For example:

Graduates will be able to “address large-scale, complex problems through effectively cooperating and collaborating with others - through a range of media - and by confidently leading cross-functional task groups” 

rather than

Graduates will be able to… “understand groups and how they achieve goals”.

9. Does each PLO represent a distinct ability or skill set ie there are not several different abilities in one making a compound PLO or the same skills repeated, in slightly different forms, in more than one PLOs making for repeated PLOs.

10. Are there any key skills gaps? Is something missing? Is there anything that is central to the programme outcomes and assessment that is not incorporated into the PLOs.  For example, if a programme involves extensive fieldwork in which team project skills are crucial and developed and assessed over time, it would be beneficial to draw this into a PLO.

11. Does the expression of the Statement of Purpose and the PLOs combined give the reader a sense of a ‘designed’ programme of study: the result of deliberate thought and specific choices being made in order to produce a particular, ‘distinctive’ programme?

_____

Supplementary questions for combined programmes:

12. Why are the subjects in the combined programme a good ‘fit’? 

13. What skills and abilities do graduates from the combined programme possess? How do these differ from the skills and abilities gained by peers on relevant single subject programmes? 

14. What are the particular strengths / benefits conferred by the combined programme?

 

Programme-level Assessment

Assessment within the modular scheme is carried out at the module level. Therefore the mapping process between PLOs and module outcomes and assessments is crucial to ensuring that all PLOs are both developed and assessed appropriately across modules and stages of a programme.  

Many programmes include modules which explicitly aim to integrate learning beyond the individual module level and to consider outcomes across an entire term, stage or programme. These can provide a useful focus for developing and assessing PLOs which can strengthen a sense of programme development. 

As part of the York Pedagogy project, the University developed a range of mapping tools and reflective questions. Departments may wish to use these tools to help ensure alignment between assessment and student work at module level and the PLOs. These aids are entirely optional and not a requirement.

The Programme Assessment Strategies project (PASS) explored a range of programme-level approaches to integrative assessment at term, stage and Programme and incorporates a number of case studies from a range of Higher Education Institutions.  

The PASS website hosts a series of case studies on programme focused assessment, with attention to integrative level / year assessment tasks. One such example is Peninsula Medical School’s assessment modules (pdf) which run through their five-year programme. These assessment modules are not linked to specific areas of teaching but are designed around a spiral curriculum: this approach enables assessment to revisit topics longitudinally ‘with the aim of reinforcing learning and allowing for increasing complexity, with plenty of time for student-selected special study units and electives, as well as self-directed learning’.

Examples of such modules and assessments include:

Final Year Projects and Dissertations (FYPD)

Dissertations have long provided a vehicle through which students are able to integrate learning from across a programme of study and apply it into an extended piece of independent research.  In recent years, interest has grown in diversifying the final year project to introduce an element of choice into the Final year project and to incorporate a broader range of skills.

Mike Healey’s study of FYPD Developing and enhancing undergraduate final-year projects and dissertations focuses on the value, role and experience of FYPDs in higher education supported by over 70 different case studies organised by type and discipline. He focuses on an extension of the ideas of ‘students as producers’ of knowledge through the FYPD, emphasising the broad variety in their conception, purpose, organisation, location and nature of the outputs involved with FYPDs involving, for example, performances or artefacts; work-based projects or consultancy projects in industry settings; communication or teaching-focused projects; engagement with community groups and an increased focus on impact and dissemination.

A flavour of these differences is given by the following dimensions (p25):

FYPD can range from...

to...

Campus-based

Community or work-based

Undertaken at the university

Undertaken away from the University

Research career preparation

Preparation for a range of possible careers

Student learning centred

Outcome / product centred

Discipline-based

Multi- or inter-disciplinary

Student initiated

Teacher/supervisor initiated

Individual work

Group work

Self-contained

Part of a larger project or set of projects

Completed within the course

Building on / revisiting the work of previous cohorts

Original to the student

Original to the discipline

University audience

Professional/public audience

Emphasising in-depth analysis

Emphasising synthesis of knowledge/skills

Assessed by academics

Assessed by peers/professionals

Individual supervision

Group/peer supervision

The potential is clearly there for the FYPD to provide a focus for all key programme level outcomes. Ensuring that module learning activities and assessments build towards the FYPD can also support staging through the programme and improve the quality of the outcome and the benefits for students. Healy’s review makes it clear that a high quality and transformative FYPD is more likely to be effected if preparation begins not in the final year, but from the outset of the programme. The FYPD can thus provide a vehicle for a ‘capstone’ project which allows for assessment of students’ overall achievements and their ability to integrate and apply the skills that they have developed through the programme.

Such activities can also support students in making explicit the value of their experiences to potential employers. This can be further supported through activities aiming to explicitly link the FYPD to employability through, for example, dissemination activities or oral assessments.

Project work and authentic assessments

At earlier stages of a programme, modules involving project work and authentic, ‘real world’ assessment can also provide a focus for programme-level assessment and development towards the PLOs (as well as potentially providing supported and assessed preparation for the FYPD).

As with FTPD, project work and authentic assessment can involve the need for students to ‘bring together’ their learning from a range of modules and apply this through a challenging task involving the creation of a usable product (e.g. learning resources, reports, or recommendations) or a useful performance (eg delivery of an event or a presentation). The task framework is likely to involve a focus on ‘skills’ (academic literacy skills such as critical thinking, reading, academic communication, as well as ‘transferable’, ‘employability’ skills such as digital literacy, group working and leadership skills).  There is also likely to be a focus on the process of development as well as the end product.

'Introductory resource: Authentic assessment’ (Arnold). 

Section 12 of the Guide to Assessment, Standards, Marking and Feedback provides detailed guidance on assessed group projects.

The following page also provides guidance on organising groups and facilitating submission, marking and feedback for online group assignments, supported by information related to the use of software tools to support project work and the development and submission of video, audio, presentation and web-based outputs. 

Problem-Based Learning can provide a powerful framework for project work and the integration of learning through complex and challenging ‘problems’.

Portfolio learning and assessment

Portfolio assessments allow for the development and submission of a collection of artefacts demonstrating learning and the achievement of learning outcomes drawn together by narrative/reflection.  They can be used effectively for learning and assessment at stage and programme level by providing a focus for students to chart and demonstrate their progress towards these outcomes incorporating evidence from a range of sources. There is scope for an increased level of student control negotiation and personalisation; a greater focus on process; and increased attention to the development of underpinning skills such as self-assessment and reflection. The Law school incorporates portfolios to support Problem-Based Learning within the curriculum aiming to draw learning together across the stages of the UG programmes. Portfolios can also support a final capstone assessment tasking students to demonstrate their achievement of the Programme Learning Outcomes. They can thus provide a powerful means of drawing learning together at Programme level and can be used to provide supporting reflection and narrative for project outputs or dissertations.  

E-portfolios

PDLT guidance on the use of University-supported tools for Portfolio assessments.

Efficient assessment of portfolios

Report prepared by the Centre for Recording Achievement exploring HE practices in portfolio assessment and moderation and offering advice on maximising efficiency and effectiveness of portfolios as an assessment tool. 

A Programme-level view of student formative work and staff-student contact time

When designing modules, it is necessary to consider learning and assessment planning within the module in the wider context of the Programme mapping and how the modules contribute to staged development through the levels of the programme towards the Programme Learning Outcomes.

In considering this, it is important to consider aspects such as:

  • The nature and level of the challenge

  • Volume and timing of formative work and feedback 

  • Balance between contact time and independent study

  • Balance between individual and group working

  • Format of contact time and balance between large and small group teaching

  • ‘Blend’ of asynchronous/synchronous and online/face-to-face activities

  • Level of support, direction and tutor intervention

These aspects are central to the staff-student contact time and independent work pages.