Hanne Kvilhaugsvik (University of Bergen)

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