Hanne Kvilhaugsvik is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen. Her research interests are organizational change in universities, governmental steering of higher education, and university governance. Her PhD project explores how learning outcomes and criteria of relevance for the labor market are used to evaluate and steer higher education in Norway and Denmark. This blog post is based on material from her master’s thesis in Administration and Organization Theory from 2015.
By the end of 2012, Norwegian higher education institutions were required to introduce written descriptions of the intended learning outcomes for each and every course unit and study program, in every discipline. Learning outcomes are connected with qualifications frameworks, the Bologna process, and the OECD, and have therefore been introduced throughout Europe during the last couple of years. So, what happens to higher education institutions when learning outcomes are introduced? Do they improve the quality of education and provide transparency, or are they simply formal requirements?
What are learning outcomes?
Learning outcomes can be defined as: “[…] written statement[s] of what the successful student/learner is expected to be able to do at the end of the module/course unit, or qualification.” (Adam, 2004: 5). In pedagogy, learning outcomes have been connected to a paradigm-shift “from teaching to learning” or “from input to output”. The recommendation is to use expected learning outcomes as a starting point for planning course units and study programs (Biggs and Tang, 2011). This is described in contrast to planning based on traditional input factors, such as reading list and content descriptions.
Learning outcomes can be understood as administrative tools or formalities. However, they have increasingly been described and promoted as instruments for reform and change (Lassnigg, 2012; Bjørnåvold and Coles, 2007). There is no shortage of goals for using learning outcomes: To improve the quality of education, provide transparency, ensure relevant qualifications for the labor market, and provide better opportunities to steer education. Learning outcomes can therefore be understood in connection with New Public Management ideas, and especially with ideas of reforming higher education towards more ‘complete organizations’ (Brunsson and Sahlin-Anderson, 2000). While learning outcomes have been studied much within pedagogy, there has been less research on learning outcomes as political instruments or policy tools (Souto-Otero, 2012). It is therefore interesting to study how learning outcomes are introduced and defined as instruments in higher education.
A case study on learning outcomes in higher education
For my master’s thesis I did a comparative case study of two higher education institutions in Norway, and two programs of study within them. The institutions are one university and one university college. Norwegian higher education has traditionally been dominated and steered by input factors, so the shift to learning outcomes is an interesting development in this context. The two programs of study chosen are both within the discipline of engineering, which is a professional education and also a case of ‘hard’ and ‘applied’ sciences (Becher and Trowler, 2001). The first program is a Master of Science in Engineering, and the second is a bachelor’s program in engineering. The material for the case study consisted of a combination of documents and qualitative interviews with key actors from four different groups: Leadership, administration, teachers, and students. The case study covered the period 2007-2015.
An instrument, not a bureaucratic exercise
At the national level in Norway, learning outcomes and the qualifications frameworks were left to the administrative ‘experts’ and were not subject of much political debate (Bergseng, 2011; Helgøy and Homme, 2015). However, at both institutions in this study, it was emphasized that learning outcomes were not a “bureaucratic exercise”. A leader at the university college described it in this way: “[…] we wanted to focus on [learning outcomes] and make this into a development project, and not just a technical conversion of existing descriptions into a new language.”
Learning outcomes were defined as a development project both at the university and university college, and especially an instrument to improve the study programs as units. At the university, learning outcomes were defined as instruments to improve the coherence, leadership, and quality assurance of the study programs. At the university college, the instrument was also connected to these issues, but the profession and the national framework plans for engineering education were also an important element here. Because learning outcomes focus on cohesiveness and what students learn in the study program as a whole, they were defined as instruments that could contribute to open up courses and study programs up for discussions involving other actors than just the teachers. Learning outcomes were also incorporated into the quality assurance system at both institutions, which means that learning outcomes will be an important feature in future evaluations and development projects. It is interesting to note that the improvement of the quality assurance system was defined as an important part of the introduction of learning outcomes – and vice versa.
A useful instrument?
The teachers at the university described the process as initially top-down and with a bureaucratic focus, but after working on learning outcomes themselves they saw it as a “useful exercise”. At the university college, the teachers also described learning outcomes as “useful”, but they added that it was nothing new. One of the teachers said: “It is not something new and revolutionary, neither for the students nor for others. It was not like anyone had been waiting for this[.]” Learning outcomes coincided in time with other, similar development projects at both institutions. Learning outcomes were also seen as similar to the existing input factors, such as learning objectives, course descriptions, and reading lists. The leadership at both institutions even used “learning outcomes” interchangeably with “learning objectives”. It is therefore hardly surprising that learning outcomes were not seen as new instruments.
There were few signs that learning outcomes changed the teaching and assessment forms at the institutions, and neither the teachers nor the students saw a need for learning outcomes to be used more either. So, while the teachers thought learning outcomes were useful, they did not use them much (yet). Transparency and better information for the labor market have also been important goals for learning outcomes, but this was not much of a topic at the institutions in this study. At the university, the students explained that they already had good chances on the labor market. At the university college, the teachers described that it was difficult to formulate good, general learning outcomes that could also be useful for employers. In the teachers’ view, the employers generally wanted to know about the course content and reading lists, not the learning outcomes.
Do learning outcomes matter?
Learning outcomes definitely have potential as an instrument to steer higher education. This is especially clear in the incorporation into the quality assurance system and the use of learning outcomes to focus on the study program as a cohesive unit. The findings from the study also shows that learning outcomes must be understood in the context of simultaneous developments and instruments within the institutions and disciplines. It is especially interesting that learning outcomes were layered with more traditional input factors such as learning objectives, course descriptions, and reading lists. While the teachers and students described learning outcomes as not being used much in the teaching, the incorporation of learning outcomes into the quality assurance systems suggests that learning outcomes will be more than a formal requirement or an administrative tool in the future. Whether they then can deliver on the promises of improved quality of education and increased transparency is a different question.
Adam, Stephen (2004) Using learning outcomes. A consideration of the nature, role, application and implications for European education of employing ‘learning outcomes’ at local, national and international levels. United Kingdom Bologna Seminar. Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.
Biggs, John B. & Tang, Catherine (2011) Teaching for quality learning at university : what the student does, Berkshire, Open University Press.
Bjørnåvold, Jens & Coles, Mike (2007) Governing education and training; the case of qualifications frameworks. European journal of vocational training, 42-43 (1-3), p. 203-235.
Brunsson, Nils & Sahlin-Anderson, Kerstin (2000) Constructing Organizations: The Example of Public Sector Reform. Organization Studies, 21 (4), p. 721.
Lassnigg, L. (2012) ‘Lost in translation’: learning outcomes and the governance of education. Journal of Education and Work, 25 (3), p. 299-330.
Souto-Otero, Manuel (2012) Learning outcomes: good, irrelevant, bad or none of the above? Journal of Education and Work, 25 (3), p. 249-258.