The importance of learning outcomes has gained traction at Europe’s universities in recent years. The topic is also important in sectors beyond higher education, but often with a different purpose. EUA experts Thérèse Zhang and Helene Peterbauer give an in-depth explanation of what they mean for universities and ultimately call for a much-needed dialogue across sectors.
The term “Learning outcomes” is used to state what a learner should know, be able to do and understand at the end of a learning process or sequence. Learning outcomes are, hence, considered to increase transparency and accountability within higher education and towards stakeholders, including students and professional sectors. Their simple and comprehensive definition has the advantage of covering the broad range of areas in which they are used, most notably curriculum and course development, the articulation of non-formal and informal learning, qualification frameworks, and professional standards. However, the definition can also have a blurring effect on the important distinctions between the various purposes of learning outcomes within these distinct areas. This, in turn, can complicate their implementation, and make it difficult to reach a mutual understanding of their meaning and purpose and demonstrate their usefulness across various areas in practice.
A story of success?
In the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), learning outcomes were first mentioned in the 2003 Berlin Communiqué – not as a stand-alone goal, but as one tool to achieve comparable degrees and underpin structural reforms in the context of the Bologna Process. Learning outcomes have also been associated with student-centred learning – another long-term goal of the Bologna Process – since they are considered to contribute to a shift of focus from an input-based, teacher-centred education provision to outcome-based, student-centred learning and teaching. In recent years, European universities have been increasingly implementing them, as demonstrated by the EUA Trends reports. Nowadays, learning outcomes are widely considered as a common basis for developing education provision across the EHEA.
As the switch to an outcomes-based education and the use of learning outcomes became more mainstream, further benefits associated with learning outcomes were identified. For instance, respondents to EUA’s Trends 2018 survey attributed various positive developments to the implementation of learning outcomes. These include improved recognition procedures, revised course contents, methodologies and assessment, and even enhanced collaboration among teachers.
The success of learning outcomes concurrently raised expectations on how comprehensively they should be addressed, and highlighted challenges associated with their implementation. The biggest of these challenges has to do with the need for a constructive alignment of learning outcomes, teaching and assessment methods, for which educational psychologist John Biggs developed a model. While curricula need to contain statements on intended learning outcomes, such as what kind of knowledge or skills the learner should acquire through a learning experience, methods of learning and teaching need to be calibrated to match these intentions, and the most appropriate assessment methods to check whether intended learning outcomes have actually been achieved need to be developed. For universities, fully grasping the complexity and consequences of such an alignment is no easy task and still causes challenges. However, it is a critical precondition to plan learning experiences from the beginning until the end. In fact, alignment is needed to ensure learning outcomes have any value at all.
A common language
Learning outcomes are also used beyond the higher education sector. The “European handbook on defining, writing and applying learning outcomes” of the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) describes them as the “‘glue’ binding diverse policy initiatives and instruments together”, also covering the non-formal and informal education sectors. Outside of higher education, learning outcomes are used to articulate non-formal and informal learning; they appear in European and national qualifications frameworks where they describe the required and expected levels of qualifications; and, at times, they are used to define expectations for occupations on the European and national labour markets. In these contexts, learning outcomes can be considered as standard setting. In contrast, this is not necessarily the case in the higher education context where learning outcomes mainly refer to learning and teaching processes, which are dynamic and endlessly subject to (re)negotiation, and dependent on their changeable adequacy for student learning. In addition, precisely how learning and teaching is approached depends on the institution’s autonomy in defining its curriculum, albeit in line with national qualifications frameworks.
This is important to keep in mind when contemplating criticism of the perceived bureaucratic and rigid nature of learning outcomes. For example, if implemented comprehensively and thoughtfully in higher education, learning outcomes would support a move towards student-centred learning (and vice-versa) because they place the focus on what students are supposed to gain from their education, not on what teachers are offering. However, there are critical voices questioning whether the widespread adoption of learning outcomes would indeed have this effect. Some, including Ian Scott (2011), have even suggested that learning outcomes might actually stifle student-centred learning since they imply that an authority predefines the objectives, means and verification of a learning experience, hence not allowing enough flexibility for adaptation to the specific learner’s needs, interests or other, unintended learning outcomes. Such criticism is only fair if deployed as an advisory against flawed practice. Otherwise it misses the point that policy and practitioner debates about learning outcomes generally do not prohibit, but rather encourage the involvement of stakeholders, including students, in the development of learning outcomes.
Interestingly, this criticism also draws due attention to the risk of perceiving learning outcomes only as an authoritative measurement of learning imposed by the world outside the education sector. Yet this should not be the case. The full potential of learning outcomes in serving all communities can only be grasped through a cross-sectoral dialogue between the worlds of education and work.
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All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.