Our second ‘Learning Outcomes Project’ paper has just been published in Studies in Higher Education. It is called ‘Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: the academic’s perspective’ and follows on from our previously published paper ‘Learning about learning outcomes: the student perspective’. Both papers are based on research we conducted with students and academic staff at the University of Leicester concerning their perceptions about, and uses of, learning outcomes.
There are relatively few research papers concerning student and academic staff use of, and engagement with, learning outcomes – hence, we are pleased that these papers are helping to build the knowledge-base around this very under-researched area.
Some snippets are given below from our most recently published paper that I hope will whet your appetite to read it in full:
In 2007, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) conducted an audit of 70 institutions in England and found varied engagement with learning outcomes by academics in the same institutions. The report stated: ‘It is apparent that not all staff embraced the learning outcomes approach with equal enthusiasm’ (6). The QAA further reported that ‘some institutions have found more difficulty than others in introducing [learning outcomes] as a keystone of programme and module/unit design’ (2007, 13). No further review or audit appears to have been conducted concerning institutional or staff adoption and use of learning outcomes. Indeed, despite copious literature and guidance about how to write learning outcomes, there is very little evidence about how both academic staff and students actually make use of them. Consequently, it is relatively unknown whether the unequal enthusiasm observed in staff by the QAA (2007) is still evident within the academic community. Further, it is unclear if differences in enthusiasm and engagement are apparent across disciplines within the same institutions. (Page 2)
Eighty-four per cent of Biological Sciences questionnaire respondents considered that learning outcomes are useful learning aids for students (Table 2). This view was further illuminated by two of the interviewees within this School. BS2 commented that learning outcomes ‘let the students know precisely what it is we expect them to learn from the teaching event that we prepare for them’. Similarly, BS3 stated that learning outcomes give students ‘more guidance on where they should be directing their efforts with their learning’ by acting, in effect, as an extra syllabus to guide primarily ‘the background reading they do in addition to the lecture’. In complete disagreement with this view, BS1 considered learning outcomes to be ‘almost worthless’. (Page 7)
The interviews offered illumination of some English academics’ views concerning the process of creating learning outcomes. Eng2 and Eng3 in particular viewed English as a subject that could not ‘enact’ learning outcomes in any ‘absolutely quantifiable and homogenous’ (Eng2) way. Instead, both affirmed that ‘with this subject part of what you want students to do is to veer away from the syllabus’ (Eng2) and develop independence to direct and extend their further reading and study. As such, they were concerned to write their learning outcomes in a way that students retain flexibility and freedom to cultivate their particular ‘pleasure of the subject’ (Eng2). (Page 11)
Medical questionnaire respondents reported very similar views to those in Biological Sciences concerning the priority for the use of learning outcomes in higher education. Whilst half the sample wanted learning outcomes to continue being used as they are now, nearly a third reported that they are over-prioritised. Only around a fifth indicated that learning outcomes should be given higher priority (Figure 1). Another similarity to the Biological Sciences sample occurred in the interview data concerning the priority of learning outcomes within the current developing framework of higher education. Mirroring BS2’s comments regarding learning outcomes acting as a ‘safety net’ for tutors against complaining consumer-type students, Md1 suggested that following the tuition fee rise in 2012, learning outcomes may become part of ‘a big legal issue’ for universities. (Page 13)
our findings also suggest that there is a middle ground occupied by academic staff between the extremes of aligning with learning outcomes from a student-centred learning or bureaucratic accountability perspective. Consequently, it is perhaps now time to move beyond the polarised arguments about learning outcomes that have dominated within the literature. Specifically, the interview data indicated that accountability may become more significant in some understandings about learning outcomes as a consumerist framework of higher education further develops in the face of higher fees. (Page 17)
(Kerry Dobbins, Sara Brooks, Jon J.A. Scott, Mark Rawlinson & Robert I. Norman (2014): Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: the academic’s perspective, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.966668)
Be sure to read the full paper to put these snippets into the wider context of our research and findings. As always, we would be very pleased to hear any thoughts or comments you may have based on the research presented and/or conclusions drawn in the paper.