Outcomes-Based Approaches to Teaching and Learning

The background to OBE in Hong Kong

Starting from the 1980s, it has become a worldwide trend to emphasize student learning outcomes in higher education. In Hong Kong in 2007, the University Grants Committee (UGC) established a Task Force on Outcome-based Approaches to Student Learning. In its Quality Reviews, the UGC had already begun to focus on student outcomes, and it considered OBE to be a natural progression in the development of higher education in Hong Kong. Subsequently, at a Symposium on OBE in 2008, the adoption of outcome-based approaches was encouraged among all Hong Kong tertiary institutions. To learn more about the rationale for implementing OBE in Hong Kong higher education, read this speech by Michael V Stone of the UGC, given at an earlier Symposium on Outcome-based Approach to Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education.

Outcomes-Based Education (OBE), as implemented in Hong Kong institutions of Higher Education, is distinguished from application of OBE systems in some other parts of the world. These include OBE being used remedially in the form of individualized programs for disadvantaged school students, or managerially in a top-down approach for benchmarking to standardize outcomes at institutional level.  Instead, in Hong Kong each institution has been given the autonomy to develop their own frameworks in a systematic way. The focus is on more effective teaching and learning at course and program levels. John Biggs prefers to refer to this as constructive alignment, or Outcomes-Based Teaching and Learning (OBTL); the title Outcomes-Based Approaches to Teaching and Learning (OBATL, or simply OBA) is also sometimes used1.

1 Biggs, John B. & Catherine Tang. Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does (4th ed). Maidenhead : McGraw-Hill/Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University Press, 2011

OBE overview

What does an outcomes-based approach involve?


OBATL reflects a paradigm shift in education, where the focus has shifted from what the teacher does  to what the students do , including providing evidence for their learning. This shift has significant impact on the design of curricula, particularly assessment. OBATL has been widely adopted by universities all over the world, and recommended by the University Grants Committee in Hong Kong as a guide towards the achievement of ideal graduate attributes. The primary focus of OBATL is the clear statement of what the student should be able to do after taking a course, known as the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs). Once the ILOs have been determined, the next step in OBATL is to design Teaching / Learning Activities (TLAs) which require students to actively participate in the construction of their new knowledge and abilities. The final OBATL component is the Assessment Tasks (ATs), which measure how well students can use their new abilities to solve real-world problems, demonstrate creativity, and communicate with others.

A key component of course design using OBATL is the constructive alignment of ILOs, TLAs, and ATs. This design methodology requires the Intended Learning Outcomes to be developed first, and then the Teaching / Learning Activities and Assessment Tasks are developed based on the ILOs.



This process of instruction using constructive alignment in a course can be summarized in four stages:

  1. Outcomes  : describe the ILOs in the form of verbs (learning activities), their object (the course content) and specify the context and a standard the students are to attain.

  2. Activities  : create a learning environment using TLAs that address those verbs and therefore are likely to elicit the intended outcomes.

  3. Assessment  : use ATs that also contain those verbs, thus enabling the instructor to judge with the help of rubrics to what extent students have attained the intended outcomes.

  4. Grading  : transform these judgments into graded levels of acceptability.

The three components consistently address the same teaching agenda, and thus optimize the likelihood that the students will engage the appropriate learning activities. Constructive alignment learning design is based on the principles of  constructivism in learning , and  alignment in the design of teaching and assessment . It extends Shuell’s statement that “what the student does is actually more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does” (Shuell, 1986: 429).

For more information see John Biggs’ journal articles “What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning” , “Aligning Teaching and Assessing to Course Objectives”, and his foundational book “Teaching for Quality Learning at University” listed in the ‘Key Introductory Resources’ below. “Getting started” is also an excellent and concise practical introduction by CityU to OBTL and constructive alignment, avilable at http://www.cityu.edu.hk/edge/obtl/elearn_tool/index.htm

Designing courses using taxonomies

The use of a taxonomy is key to the development of constructive alignment in learning design. Bloom’s Revised taxonomy and Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy both offer ways to describe the growing complexity of a learner’s activity and understanding. These taxonomies list the levels of understanding and the indicative activity verbs associated with each level, and can be used to:
– Set the learning outcomes appropriate to where a student should be at a particular stage of the course.
– Assess the learning outcomes attained.

The SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy levels and indicative verbs are particularly well suited to aligning the outcomes and assessment for open-ended tasks such as discussions or essay assignments:

In constructive alignment, we start with the outcomes we intend students to learn, and align teaching and assessment to those outcomes. The outcome statements contain a learning activity, a verb, that students need to perform to best achieve the outcome, such as “apply expectancy-value theory of motivation”, or “explain the concept of…“. That verb says what the relevant learning activities are that the students need to undertake in order to attain the intended learning outcome. … The SOLO Taxonomy helps to map levels of understanding that can be built into the intended learning outcomes and to create the assessment criteria or rubrics. Constructive alignment can be used for individual courses, for degree programmes, and at the institutional level, for aligning all teaching to graduate attributes. http://www.johnbiggs.com.au/academic/constructive-alignment/
(A very brief but clear explanation by Biggs himself of what constructive alignment is; it also links to the SOLO taxonomy chart).

As learning progresses it becomes more complex. SOLO, which stands for the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome, is a means of classifying learning outcomes in terms of their complexity, enabling us to assess students’ work in terms of its quality not of how many bits of this and of that they got right. At first we pick up only one or few aspects of the task (unistructural), then several aspects but they are unrelated (multistructural), then we learn how to integrate them into a whole (relational), and finally, we are able to generalised that whole to as yet untaught applications (extended abstract). The diagram lists verbs typical of each such level. SOLO can be used not only in assessment, but in designing the curriculum in terms of the learning outcomes intended, which is helpful in implementing constructive alignment. From http://www.johnbiggs.com.au/academic/solo-taxonomy/


16 Action verbs for OBTL
A very handy and practical site by CityU. Scan your mouse over each verb to find more related verbs and examples of how to write them into ILOs according to the SOLO taxonomy.

 Bloom’s Revised taxonomy has been applied to the activities of students working in the digital domain using computers, with a gradient from lower order to higher order thinking skills:


Bloom’s Revised taxonomy

For an excellent chart and explanation of Bloom’s original taxonomy, go to: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/

Key Introductory OBE & Constructive Alignment Resources

These resources are listed in order from the shortest and simplest through to the most thorough.

Constructive Alignment
A very brief but clear explanation by John Biggs himself of what constructive alignment is; it also links to the SOLO taxonomy chart.

Teaching Teaching and Understanding Understanding
An excellent entertaining and informative 19-minute mini-movie video summarizing Biggs & Tang’s book, introducing constructive alignment and the key features of OBTL.

OBE FAQs by PolyU
A page which answers common questions about OBE and its implementation in Hong Kong institutions of higher education.

Using Biggs’ Model of Constructive Alignment in Curriculum Design
This site provides an excellent visual introduction to designing constructively-aligned curriculum, based on both Biggs’ (SOLO) and Bloom’s Taxonomies, giving clear practical examples. It also links to pages of exercises (‘Sessions Plans and Moduoles’) where you can  put into practice what you have been reading.

Aligning Teaching and Assessing to Course Objectives
Another practical article by Biggs summarizing the principles of OBTL, focusing on models and modes of assessment.
Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning Teaching and Assessing to Course Objectives.  In Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: New Trends and Innovations. University of Aveiro, 13-17 April, 2003.

OBATL Resource

OBATL Resource Repository