Over the last few months I have been doing some rigorous searching and reviewing of the published, peer-reviewed literature concerning learning outcomes. We currently have a paper in review as a result of this work and I hope to provide further details about that particular piece at some point soon.
For this post, I want to provide a few details for readers about some of the papers that I’ve come across that make interesting and useful reading. These papers address a range of themes and issues concerning the learning outcomes approach in higher education. As such, they help to show the broad and multi-faceted nature of this particular topic:
Conceptions of learning outcomes
As I’ve commented on a number of times in previous posts, there are lots of debates engaged in by scholars about the origins and purposes of learning outcomes (they are variously viewed, for example, as the building blocks of student-centred learning or as supporting a managerialist accountability agenda). Rather than rehearsing or reviewing these well-established arguments, Prøitz analyses a selection of 33 ‘scholarly written documents’ to investigate how learning outcomes are conceived of by scholars within these particular documents:
To provide insight into this issue, the paper explores the following questions: How is the term ‘learning outcome’ defined? By whom? When? Where?…Findings indicate that there is a dominant established definition of the term learning outcome. However, a wide range of alternative definitions are also identified. These assert that learning outcomes involve more than what can be described in pre-specified and measurable terms (from abstract).
Debates about learning outcomes
Again, I’ve tried to identify a paper here that interrogates the issue of learning outcomes, but from a different angle to the well-worn (and well-cited) arguments presented by scholars like Hussey and Smith. This paper discusses institutional isomorphism – ‘a process whereby organisations come to appear and behave in a similar fashion’, i.e. homogenisation becomes ‘the norm across the field’ (p.488) – and considers whether the adoption of threshold learning outcomes is an example of institutional isomorphism:
This article examines the adoption of threshold learning outcomes (TLOs) for academic disciplines in Australia as an example of institutional isomorphism. It is argued that the type of sociology embedded in the TLOs values the sociology of the metropole and that, while the TLOs are broad enough to allow for individual sociology departments to continue to teach their own version of sociology, they further institutionalise the norm that sociology is about metropolitan theory and methods. Nevertheless, these isomorphic processes may serve to positively legitimise and institutionalise sociology, potentially enhancing the discipline’s position in higher education (from abstract).
Implementing a learning outcomes approach
I have included this paper as an example of how a learning outcomes approach was incorporated into construction degree courses within one institution. I do not suggest this is a perfect example or an example of the way it should be done. I have included it here specifically because it is an example:
This article provides a rationale for the adoption of a learning outcomes approach for delivering a curriculum. Included is a unit guide framework for establishing the learning outcomes and the incorporation of an appropriate assessment strategy. This format has been adopted at Sheffield Hallam University and has proved to be most successful. In order to provide validity for this approach, the article contains an example of the use of a learning outcomes model related to the requirements of professional bodies involved in the education of construction students within higher education establishments (from abstract).
Assessing learning outcomes
Smith, B.W., and Y. Zhou. 2005. Assessment of learning outcomes: the example of spatial analysis at Bowling Green State University. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education 14, no. 3: 211-216.
Oliver, B., B. Tucker, R. Gupta, and S. Yeo. 2008. eVALUate: an evaluation instrument for measuring students’ perceptions of their engagement and learning outcomes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 33, no. 6: 619-630.
These papers offer examples of how the assessment of learning outcomes is being approached in different institutions/contexts. Smith and Zhou describe an approach based on students self-assessing the skills that they have developed (which are aligned to the learning outcomes of the course):
The purpose of this [paper] is to provide an overview of a developing approach to assessing selected undergraduate geography courses at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). The assessment focuses on the students’ skills in collecting, integrating, analysing, displaying, and communicating spatial information and data sources using mapping and geographic information systems (GIS). For convenience, this set of skills is referred to as spatial analysis…One factor influencing our approach is that the Student Achievement Assessment Committee has evolved university-wide learning outcomes that supposedly are attained by all graduates. Those outcomes are identified by six verbs: write, present, investigate, connect, participate, and lead (BGSU Student Achievement Assessment Committee)…In this initial stage of the project’s development, students are asked to complete a self-assessment on the set of skills ranging from simple map reading to advanced GIS analysis (p.211/212).
Oliver et al discuss the development of a specific tool that has been developed to measure students’ perceptions on their engagement with their course and their achievement of the learning outcomes:
In the current climate in Australian higher education, quality assurance in university teaching is a priority. In particular, the introduction of the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund (LTPF) has refocused attention on universities’ internal student evaluation survey instruments. This paper reports the development, validation and implementation of a new unit survey instrument which prompts students to reflect on what helps their achievement of unit learning outcomes, and to report their levels of motivation, engagement and overall satisfaction with a semester-long course or unit of study. The instrument ( eVALUate) was created from precepts reported in the research literature, current practices in evaluating teaching, and sound quality assurance practices appropriate to a university outcomes-focused education paradigm (from abstract).
These papers I would particularly recommend reading. They consider learning outcomes within the context of promoting sustainability and affective learning. I have already commented in a previous post on how much I like Svanström et al’s framework of developing learning outcomes at two different levels. This framework helps to counter the arguments that learning outcomes narrow learning and promote a utilitarian focus:
This paper sets out to discuss the commonalities that can be found in learning outcomes (LOs) for education for sustainable development in the context of the Tbilisi and Barcelona declarations. The commonalities include systemic or holistic thinking, the integration of different perspectives, skills such as critical thinking, change agent abilities and communication, and finally different attitudes and values (from abstract).
…LOs for sustainability were generated in two levels, for “Broad education and learning” providing the systems perspective, and for “Discipline education and learning” providing deeper disciplinary perspective (p.344).
Shephard focuses on the importance of developing learning within the affective domain, as well as the cognitive one. Various disciplines are examined to explore the ways in which they address affective outcomes and develop students’ attitudes, values and behaviours:
This paper suggests that most teaching and assessment in higher education focus on cogitative skills of knowledge and understanding rather than on affective outcomes of values, attitudes and behaviours. Some areas of higher education, however, have effectively pursued affective outcomes and these use particular learning and teaching activities to do so. Key issues for consideration include assessing outcomes and evaluating courses, providing academic credit for affective outcomes, key roles for role models and designing realistic and acceptable learning outcomes in the affective domain (from abstract).
…This paper suggests that a central element of education for sustainability is a quest for affective learning outcomes of values, attitudes and behaviours…educators for sustainability need to identify which of their intended learning outcomes are indeed affective outcomes of values, attitudes and behaviours (p.95/96).
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of interesting/useful papers that focus on learning outcomes. However, they are some of the papers that have helped to clarify and extend my thinking around the topic of learning outcomes. Happy reading!