Accessibility statement

Designing Statements of Purpose and Programme Learning Outcomes

  • The programme approval process
  • How to write Programme Statements of Purpose
  • How to write Programme Learning Outcomes
  • Developing programme aims and objectives 

The aim of this page is to support Departmental staff when developing new programmes using the University’s frameworks for Programme Design, or when engaging in modifications to existing programmesThe page also offers advice on the process of developing the aims, objectives and scope of a new programme, and offers suggestions for how you can engage and collaborate with colleagues and students early on to develop or rework your programme.

Programme Approval Process

Guidance on the process of developing a programme for approval is provided in the following web page:

Programme design and approval

The Programme Approval Process document is used for planning approval, academic approval and marketing information.  The academic approval section includes 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. This forms the basis of the programme specifications. It is advisable to review programme specifications on a regular basis to ensure that they are current and reflect any changes made at a modular level.


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.  There is no word count limit but a target of up to 300 words is advised.

The statement can be written 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.

A possible three-paragraph framework with an example from a Department of Archaeology Masters Programme is as follows:

(statement on the importance and dynamism of the field) The European Iron Age has become an extremely dynamic focus of contemporary Archaeological research. As a protohistoric period, where archaeological evidence is studied in parallel with often fragmentary Classical sources, it represents a truly interdisciplinary field that draws on a wide and diverse body of evidence. Recent, continent-wide, debates on the nature of ‘Celtic identity’, and the broader meaning of ethnicity in past societies, gives the field direct relevance to contemporary issues. The impact of new scientific methods, most obviously in genetic research, are increasingly informing our ideas and sparking new debates. 

(statement on the distinctiveness and benefits of studying this at York) This programme will provide you with a unique opportunity to contribute to this dynamic interdisciplinary field as the only current UK masters courses specialising in European Iron Age archaeology.  The University of York is currently establishing a position as a major centre for Research on the European Iron Age and the Department of Archaeology is home to staff with specialist expertise in the field along with a suite of related research projects of national and international importance. 

(statement on why the programme will leave graduates well placed for the future) The programme will thus allow students to acquire distinctive expertise in this field of Archaeology.  The programme will provide valuable skills for those wishing to pursue a career in the archaeological and heritage sectors.  The uniquely flexible model of skills modules built into the programme enables students to acquire practical (laboratory and/or field-based) skills to combine with specialist knowledge of a period from which a great deal of rural/landscape archaeology in the UK derives.  This is likely to be of great value for careers in commercial or curatorial archaeology. It will also provide students with a broad range of advanced skills to take forward into other future careers.

(277 words)

Aspects to consider in developing an applicant-facing Statement of Purpose include:


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.


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.


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. 


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. 



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

BSc in Bioarchaeology

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. The BSc in Bioarchaeology draws upon our staff expertise in BioArCh, a leading laboratory facility for the study of ancient biological materials. The degree reflects the multidisciplinary nature of our subject, incorporating aspects of the humanities, sciences and social sciences, our range of expertise truly covers the whole of the human past from the very beginnings of prehistory to contemporary archaeology. This degree programme provides students with a range of highly transferable skills required by graduates for future employment both within and outside an academic setting and providing skills to allow the potential for further study in biological sciences at Masters level. Our graduates have gone into careers in diverse areas such as archaeology and heritage, laboratory technician work, law, local government planning, chartered surveying and land management, accountancy and financial services, teaching and the police and civil service. As well as engaging with key themes and debates in archaeology, students are trained in the skills of 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. The city of York itself has a rich heritage and we have strong links with historic museums, visitor attractions, archaeological resources and professional expertise. A variety of hands-on practical based experience is offered, including participation in field-based archaeological excavation within the Yorkshire region in addition to a choice of wide ranging specialised skills relevant for bioarchaeology as a sub-discipline including the options of laboratory work with biomolecules or analysis of animal and human bones. Our hallmark is small group teaching with approachable, friendly staff which generates our strong sense of community.
(313 words)

BEng Engineering

Engineering 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 driving advances in transport, healthcare, smart homes, entertainment, and agriculture. This exciting but challenging programme covers electrical, electronic, mechanical and mechatronic engineering in the context of a wider engineering education. Distinctive features include group engineering design and project work at every stage, working on real-world examples with societal impact. The programme comprises carefully designed modules to progress you from fundamental engineering skills through system design and analysis to applications and research, with simultaneous development of your professional skills. You will develop a sound understanding and ability to contribute creatively to engineering issues, with a wealth of practical experience in creating, designing, implementing and operating engineering systems. You will master the use of design, fabrication, measurement and testing equipment. This programme will prepare you for the workplace, possessing the technical and professional skills for careers in engineering in general. As a graduate of this programme you will be highly competent and equipped with the tools and skills to engage deeply and actively with these important technical areas.
(194 words)

BA Business of the Creative Industries

The BA in the Business of the Creative Industries is a unique programme at undergraduate level. Its primary purpose is to inspire, develop and equip future leaders, executives, managers and administrators within the creative sector. It will therefore provide you with the knowledge, understanding and skills to develop careers in the creative industries, notably entrepreneurial, business, management and administrative roles. These Industries contribute over £100 billion annually to the UK economy and have been explicitly recognised by the Government as a vitally important part of Britain's economic future and a key component in its industrial strategy. But they are also global industries involving international partnerships and world wide markets. At the same time these industries have identified areas of significant skills shortages in the business-related areas. This programme is a direct response to that need. Its core is therefore built around an in-depth consideration of the organisation and operation of certain high profile creative industries including film, television, theatre, interactive games and app design and to an extent - music. Within these industries the key institutions, technologies, business processes, products, markets, regulatory frameworks and legal issues that underpin the creation, distribution, sales and marketing of content will be explored. Examination of these will be done in a developmental and structured way across the three years of the programme, beginning with broad concepts and examples moving towards specific elements and the consideration of individual case studies of creative businesses. Throughout, the importance of audience-focussed creativity, entrepreneurial leadership, strategic planning, and effective management and administration of projects will be emphasised and embedded in the core modules. The programme will also draw extensively on modules from the existing UG programmes in Theatre, Film and Television, and Interactive Media to provide media specific knowledge, practical skills and understanding and to embed certain overarching concepts such as those of storytelling and creativity, production processes, content analysis and the centrality of digital technologies.
(317 words)

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.
(463 words)

BA in International Relations (with optional study abroad and year in industry variants)

It has never been so important to study international relations. In this exciting new degree course you'll explore how world politics is being challenged and transformed by issues such as conflict, inequality, terrorism, pandemics and environmental change. You'll question how the relations between states, international organisations, transnational corporations and civil society are being affected by important power shifts at the global level. You'll analyse the meaning of ideas like justice and human rights; investigate the effects of events like 9/11, the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the refugee crisis; and explore how emerging powers like China and India increasingly shape world politics.

Our innovative research-led approach, and in particular the breadth and depth of option modules at the research frontier, make this degree unique. We pride ourselves on the world-leading quality of our teaching. You will be working alongside leading international experts engaged in cutting-edge research in areas such as international security, nuclear politics, post-war reconstruction, environmentalism, global health and migration.

In your first year, you will gain a broad understanding of the core theoretical and practical issues in international relations. In subsequent years, you can tailor your degree to your own interests, choosing from a wide breadth of optional modules.

You also have the opportunity of completing a placement of up to a year in a political, non-governmental or business organisation, to then return and complete the final (Stage 3) year at York, as part of a four-year degree. You will have the opportunity to decide if you want to take a placement option during your first year.
Whichever degree options you take, you'll gain the knowledge and the practical skills to play your part in tackling some of the world's most important problems. You will also be prepared for a variety of different careers, including government, the civil service, research and policy-making, international organisations and NGOs, business and the financial sector. We foster and promote values of tolerance, sustainability and inclusion. We will help you fulfil your potential to become a global citizen.
(337 words)

LLM in Art Law

The LLM in Art Law is a unique collaborative and cross-disciplinary programme which will provide you with a deep understanding of the complex legal, artistic, social and ethical problems raised by the global trade in art, which was estimated at over $45 billion in 2017 (TEFAF Art Market Report 2017). Art Law is an exciting and fast-developing area of commercial, legal and academic research significance and the LLM in Art Law will provide you with opportunities to develop valuable skills used by those working in the art world, whether in such diverse areas as: Private Client legal practice, fine art insurance, the not-for-profit sector, galleries, museums or cultural heritage. Exceptionally, the programme is co-taught by academic specialists from both the research-active Department of History of Art and York Law School, thus providing you with a unique integrated and cross-disciplinary learning environment in which to explore legal, practical, commercial, ethical and financial issues arising in the art world, as well as their wider context and implications.

The LLM in Art Law is innovative in using a variety of teaching methods including 'Problem Based Learning' ('PBL') which will provide you with opportunities to work collaboratively in a student law firm', and individually, on a variety of real-life simulations. These simulations provide you with exposure to the multi-faceted nature of art law disputes and will encourage you to develop and apply a broad range of legal skills including: research; document and case analysis; problem solving, negotiation and mediation; and advocacy. Additionally, you will have opportunities to develop your presentation and oral skills in debates and reading group sessions. You will undertake a specific History of Art module (chosen from a range of options) to gain subject-specific knowledge and exposure to this discipline, as well as inter-disciplinary insights. Guest speakers drawn from the legal and art history worlds will lead masterclass sessions, and the opportunities provided by in-depth discussions with experts during the course field trip, will enhance your know-how and networks. Thus, graduates of the Art Law LLM will have a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of the global trade in art.
(349 words)

MSc in Biotechnology

We need to reduce the dependency on old technologies and industries that are harmful to ourselves and the health of the planet. How can Biologists contribute solutions to this global problem? Biotechnology offers innovative and more efficient approaches to produce high-value products for health, food and fuel from the application of natural, modified or synthetic biological resources to industry.

Introduced in 2016, this programme draws upon the excellence in research and teaching in the Department of Biology, and provides students the opportunity to study the latest research in a supportive learning environment. On completion of your Masters programme, you will be part of the next generation of Biotechnologists having developed the necessary skills in critical thinking, problem solving, data analysis and team-working. You will be able to effectively use these skills, along with your excellent practical ability in new technologies such as modern recombinant DNA techniques, fermentation and bioreactor technology to develop new industrial products and solutions that address 21st century global challenges in areas of food security, climate change, medicine and agriculture.

Consistently ranked as one of the best departments in the UK, we have an outstanding global reputation underpinned by our research and facilities. In the laboratory, you will gain experience of experimental design and execution within a group project before undertaking an extended independent research project. The written, oral and graphical presentation of scientific data and ideas will be integral to the assessment of both projects. You will also be provided with training in statistics, quantitative biology and programming, which we consider to be key skills for the modern researcher. Projects will take place in a research facility such as the world-renowned Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, which has a strong collaboration with the Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC), a not-for-profit company, based at the University of York. All this makes York one of the best places to study Biotechnology.
(312 words)

MA in Medieval Studies

The MA in Medieval Studies is a degree that offers you a truly interdisciplinary experience, with the opportunity to study in one of the longest established centres for the study of Middle Ages in the world. The degree will introduce you to new disciplines that complement your existing expertise, offering you teaching from leading specialists in the early, high and later Middle Ages from the departments of Archaeology, English, History, and History of Art. Through the MA, you will be able to bring together research questions and sources from different disciplines to create a genuinely interdisciplinary experience. Through our newly launched Medieval Islamic Cultures pathway, students are also able to specialise in the area of the Islamic medieval world by taking a selection of relevant courses within our annual module offerings. This is accompanied by extensive provision of skills training, with options available in Latin, palaeography and diplomatic, and medieval vernacular languages. By encountering a wide range of evidence and approaches, you will be part of a lively interdisciplinary scholarly environment including seminars, reading groups, research lectures, and field trips, enabling you to develop key research skills, and the ability to explore and solve problems independently. The flexibility of the programme allows you to build competence in at least three of the disciplines that make up the specialisms of the Centre, leading to the production of supervised essays and a dissertation at the forefront of scholarly research. Being in York gives you access to some of the UK's most important medieval records held in the York Minster Library and Archives, The Borthwick Institute for Archives, the City Archives, and a rich source of archaeological material in York and Yorkshire's museums and galleries, built environment, and landscape. By undertaking the MA in Medieval Studies you will develop interdisciplinary skills which will prepare you for further postgraduate study, and to seek employment in a wide range of professions, including archives, libraries, museums, galleries, publishing companies, the heritage sector, and the media.
(328 words)

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. Much of the advice is also likely to be useful for developing Module Learning Outcomes:

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 focused 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 the following guidance on credit level descriptors

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?


Developing programme aims and objectives

Whether you are planning a new programme or redesigning an existing offering, it is likely to be useful to engage and collaborate with colleagues and students early on to develop the aims, objectives and scope.  This can provide an opportunity for academic colleagues, students and representatives from professional services to shape the statement of purpose (SoP), programme learning outcomes (PLOs) and innovative features of the programme.

When developing a new interdisciplinary MSc programme in MSc Environmental and Sustainability Education & Communication, Lynda Dunlop (Education) and Liz Hurrell (Environment and Geography) did this by running a series of workshops and using the input from others to help them in their programme design. Some benefits of this approach include:    

  • Co-construction with students and colleagues,
  • Insights from a variety of perspectives,
  • Designing in a more sociable and human-centred way.

You can find out more about the approach they took in the following case study:

Designing a new interdisciplinary programme: Planning for the new MSc programme in MSc Environmental and Sustainability Education & Communication.