Final reflections

Given that the outcomes-based approach to teaching and learning now underpins the formal architecture of higher education in Ireland and across Europe, if the learning-outcomes approach is to be genuinely useful within specific disciplines in terms of improving the design and coherence of study programmes and enhancing the effectiveness of the student’s learning experience, then it is important that the concerns raised on the ground be addressed both at the institutional level and also systemically.

Disciplinary ownership and consensus are important features of agreeing and pursuing learning outcomes within particular fields. Some will be constrained by professional accreditation requirements, others less so. In either case, it seems important to engage in clear, open and positive dialogue within and between institutions about how learning outcomes can be identified and pursued in ways that reflect the diverse demands and values of a discipline. While it is the responsibility of the institution to devise a means of recording and publishing learning outcomes, ownership of learning outcomes must remain with the academic staff involved in the teaching, assessment and programme design. Learning outcomes can only be properly written by those who are involved in teaching, assessing and designing the programme of study, and, therefore, the process which the institution adopts, if it is to be effective over the medium–to-long term, must be one which engages all academic staff in a meaningful way and which supports pedagogical enquiry and development of good academic practice.

Experience in the Irish universities points to the usefulness of the following elements in the process of introducing learning outcomes:

  • one or more persons charged with promoting or championing change at the institutional level;
  • designation of individuals in the schools or academic units to lead and coordinate the process (typically directors of teaching and learning and programme directors or coordinators);
  • use of local curriculum review and/or school/course committees to provide a forum for discussion and review in the disciplinary context; and
  • central provision of information, advice and training for academic staff; the use of institutional templates to encourage consistency of approach and of presentation, and to facilitate the central collection of learning outcomes documentation for academic and quality improvement purposes. 

Writing learning outcomes is an iterative process. The institutional process concerned with learning outcomes should allow for this. Effective procedures to review and update learning outcomes are needed at the local discipline/school and faculty/college level in the context of continual curriculum review and renewal.

A learning outcomes approach should not create a climate where students aim to achieve merely at the pass threshold level. Within disciplines consideration needs to be given to the pedagogies that encourage students to maximise their experiences and their performance. How this climate is created and sustained should be the subject of pedagogical strategy development within each discipline. Within each institution academics must be supported in acquiring the skills necessary for writing quality outcomes and closely aligning their teaching and assessment methods and assessment criteria to support the desired outcomes. This has resource implications for the institutions.

Learning outcomes should be of practical utility for both teachers and students; they should provide an articulated framework for intellectual and academic enquiry that maximises students’ engagement with the particular focus of the module and with the chosen subject(s) in general. How well they work may depend upon how well they are written.

The importance of incorporating emotional and personal outcomes into a learning outcomes approach is not insignificant and it can help to ensure that learning outcomes are interpreted and applied in a range of different ways depending on the discipline within which they are being applied. While certain outcomes essential to some disciplines may need to specify quite specific types of behavioural outcomes, learning outcomes do not need to be behaviouristic in order to be effective signals of learning expectations or characteristics within a particular discipline.

As is evidenced in the case studies, the NFQ level and award-type descriptors are not always central to the design of discipline-specific learning outcomes. Further articulation and understanding of the connection between these descriptors and those of the Bologna Framework is required in order to fully instate these as a primary reference point for institutions.

For individual academics who are required to adapt to the outcomes-based approach to teaching at third level, as well as for their institutions for which learning outcomes are becoming a key element in their internal quality assurance and quality improvement procedures, the effectiveness of the process through which learning outcomes are written will determine, at least in the short term, the extent to which the benefits of working with learning outcomes can be realised and any perceived shortcomings of the outcomes-based approach mitigated or avoided altogether. Arguably too, the extent to which concrete meaning can be given to the objectives of the National Framework of Qualifications will depend upon the quality of engagement of institutions and individual academics.  

Ultimately, it is the learning outcomes for modules, not programmes, that are actually assessed, and so it is at this level that the integrity of the degree programme is guaranteed. Assessment of learning outcomes is the subject of Part three of this FIN report.

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