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UNESCO-UNEVOC has compiled a short selection of academic or professional articles that might help to clarify the signification and the use of the term "Learning outcomes". It goes thus beyond the definitions stored in TVETipedia while not pretending to offer an exhaustive bibliography on the topic.
Using learning outcomes By the EU Commission (2011)
"Learning outcomes" is one of the key-concept of the European Qualifications framework for Lifelong learning. The term is therefore analyzed by many European publications, such as the following “note”. Published by the Commission, it is addressed to “national stakeholders” – policy makers or experts. The note answers a wide range of practical questions such as “can all learning be written as learning outcomes” or “what evidence do we have that learning outcomes have an effect ?”.
The selected quotes highlight that defining "learning outcomes" is first a matter of context, the concept being used in many different fields outside qualifications framework.
As stated earlier, the key attribute of a learning outcome is that it is expressed in a level of detail that makes it fit for purpose. The following sections show clearly the effect of the context, for which the description is being made, on the style of expressing learning outcomes.
Summary of the purposes of learning outcomes
|Where learning outcomes can be found||Purpose of learning outcomes in this document|
|Occupational standards||To define the tasks and expectations of a given occupation. To serve as a basis for defining work practices, continuing training, recruitment,performance appraisal systems, but also social dialogue. Occupational standards can also be used to define VET qualifications.|
|Curricula||To define the expectations of each learning activity. To guide teachers in the teaching process, choice of methods, etc. To inform learners about what they are expected to be able to do/know after a given learning activity.|
|Assessment criteria/ specifications||To define what is to be assessed and ensure that the learning outcomes (for a qualification or learning activity/module) are met. To enable homogeneity in judging learners performance.|
|Qualifications||To define the overall expectations of a person holding the qualification. To inform employers when recruiting a person with a given qualification.To inform learners at the orientation stage(choosing a pathway) and consequently also to be used by guidance staff. To manage the qualifications system (for example, identify areas where qualifications are missing).|
|Qualifications frameworks||To define the levels of learning in a country and to classify different types and forms of qualifications in the framework according to these levels.Also, to improve transnational understanding of qualifications levels in a country.|
Those two european reports -separated by 5 years- highlight the great diversity in terminology around learning outcomes,as well as the common concepts and believes that still binds them. The first report focus on "learning outcomes" -its meaning and its importance - in 9 European countries. The second report does the same in 15 countries, this time for modularisation and unitarisation - 2 terms deeply related to elarning outcomes.
The selected quotes from the first report stress the political and theoretical background behind “learning outcomes”, with a focus on its link with the "theories of learning", showing how the concept swings between influences that can be contradictory. The selected quotes from the second report develops on how diversely unitarisation is coined and understood.
“It is necessary to turn first to the rationale for the introduction of outcome-oriented approaches to VET. What are the expectations from learning outcomes in curricula? The rationales can be traced back to four main lines of argument. From the scientific side, the justification is provided by learning theories and findings about learning and how the brain works (see 2.1). Another motivation is to strengthen the link between education and the labour market (see 2.2).A third background to curriculum reforms and outcome-oriented approaches are the new modes of public management and governance introduced for steering VET systems (see 2.3). Finally, European policy developments to increase the transparency of qualifications and to aid mobility are a major factor (see 2.4). ...
The different definitions and understandings of learning are closely linked to the underlying theories on learning. These theories can be classified in three main streams: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. ...
Behaviourism is a theoretical approach in psychology that focuses on the study of outwardly observable behaviour as reactions to a stimulus. Behaviourism states that all behaviour can be explained without considering internal mental states or consciousness. The human brain is considered to be a ‘black box’ which means that only the input (stimulus) and the output (observable behaviour) can be detected; mental learning processes cannot be successfully described (‘black-box paradigm’)…. learning outcomes in the sense of behavioural objectives have to be described in specified, quantifiable and measurable terms. For the development of these behavioural objectives, complex learning tasks must be broken down into specific measurable tasks. Learning success is assessed using tests to measure the achievement of each task (Sackney and Mergel, 2007). ...
As research on the mechanisms of learning progressed, cognitivism (6) replaced behaviourism in the 1960s as the dominant paradigm. Instead of explaining human activities only by means of stimulus and response, cognitivism focuses on the mental activities of the learner and tries to open the ‘black box’ to understand how people learn. Cognitivism tries to explain the intellectual capacities of individuals by assuming inner mental processes which combine semantic content and causal power to affect behaviour. The observed changes in behaviour are interpreted as an indication of what is happening in the learner’s head. … Instead of developing the task analysis, which aims at separating functions, the cognitivist method analyses a task and breaks it down into smaller units of information to develop instructions that move from simple to more complex units based on prior knowledge. ...
Constructivism evolved from cognitivism, therefore both approaches share several similarities. Both theories recognise the concept of schema and build on prior knowledge and experience. The greatest difference is the underlying epistemology. Cognitivism is based on objectivism, constructivism is based on subjectivism; constructivists assume reality to be social and constructed in the minds of the individual, meaning that learners construct their own reality based on previous experiences, mental structures and beliefs that are deployed to interpret social reality. The learner’s knowledge is grounded in his perception of the physical and social experiences as reproduced by his mind. …
The binding link between these philosophies is the shift in the view of the learner from a passive recipient of knowledge to an active constructor of knowledge. Learning is assumed to be a process of knowledge construction and a construction of new knowledge based on current knowledge. The learner is assumed to be aware of the processes of cognition, so able to control and regulate it; this self-awareness significantly influences the process of learning (Sackney and Mergel, 2007; Anthony, 1996). This implies a shift from teaching to learning and puts the learner and his capacities, interests and needs in the centre. According to this new paradigm, it is suggested to replace traditional learning processes by active learning approaches. In this context, the term ‘active’ means that learning activities shall be provided in which students have ... considerable autonomy and control of the direction of the learning activities (Anthony, 1996, p. 350). Another argument is that learning should be situated in realistic settings to which assessment should be also integrated. …
Nevertheless, the problem remains that the necessity of prescribed ‘objective’ learning outcomes in assuring the quality and value of professional certificates (focus on the product) does not match clearly the view of the constructivist approach which claims that outcomes of a learning process cannot be prescribed because they are constructed in the learner’s mind according to his individuality.” Extracted from pp.36-42 (Part 2: “Rationale for using learning outcomes in VET curricula and learning programmes” and Part 2.1: “Learning theories focusing on competences and learning outcomes”)
Report on modularisation and unitarisation
"While the research team applied the distinction made in Cedefop definitions between modules as ‘components of education and training programmes’ and units as ‘a set of learning outcomes (knowledge, skills and/or competences) which constitute a coherent part of a qualification’, in practice few participants differentiated between the two concepts....Further, the use of terminology in relation to modules and units varies greatly across the 15 countries. Apart from the terms modules and units, other terms describing modular structures are used in some EU Member States, particularly those with a long history of modularisation and unitisation provision.
"The role of modularisationand unitisation in vocational education and training", Working papers No 26, CEDEFOP, 2015 - ISBN 978-92-896-1895-3
Distancing itself from the first two references, this recent publication tries to “demonstrate that, far from being beneficial, outcomes-based qualifications frameworks are at best a waste of time and resources, and at worst destructive of education systems”. The book aims to “convince educationalists about the value of organized bodies of knowledge and that a primary role of education is assisting learners to acquire this knowledge”. The stand is rather controversial but the book is documented and the author an expert of the field.
In the selected quotes, she stresses – like the previous references - that terms such as “learning outcomes” cannot be reduced to a single definition. She claims however different arguments like the political choices behind the terms, or the constant evolution of the ideas carried by words like "learning outcomes", "competences"... The author finally shares her own solution to this "terminological challenge".
Not only are the same words used for different things, but different terms are used for what seem to be the same things. Sometimes, policy makers seem to change from one term to another to signal a policy shift or hoped for shift. In many cases, authors or policy makers seem to attempt to use a different term to distance themselves from an approach with which they disagree or which is seen to have failed. For example, in post-apartheid South Africa reformers took up the flag for ‘learning outcomes’, but were highly critical of ‘competencies’, seeing them as narrow and behaviourist. The adoption of the term ‘outcomes’ was intended to signal that the South African approach was broader. But the policy mechanisms produced were for all intents and purposes the same as the training packages that are part of the competency-based training system in Australia. In many countries there has been a continual series of slightly different types of competence or outcome specifications, often with different names. …
‘Outcomes’ is often contrasted with (Competence-based training/Competency-based training), seen as a broader and more general term, not limited to the requirements of workplaces, and expressing the broader goals of education in general. Many people say that competency-based training has nothing to do with outcomes-based education. They are right and wrong—different policies in different countries and at different times always have differences.
Something else that makes terms like ‘outcomes-based’ and ‘learner-centred’ difficult to deal with is that the terms both contain value-judgements and implied criticism of any alternative—which is clearly either not at all concerned with outcomes (nonsensical) or disregards learners (unacceptable). Some notion of aims or objectives, and some concern for learners, is inherent to any educational process, but invoking these terms in association with specific policy reforms seems to imply that other policies have no regard for such matters.
There is no generally accepted or standardized use of these terms. Thus, while you may find in one policy document or analysis an attempt to distinguish between these various terms, in another the same term will be used in a different way. This is complicated by the fact that the concept of a competency or outcomes-based education system is an evolving idea, the details (and terminology) of which are constantly changing (Spreen, 2001). Michael Young (2009b) argues that the terms ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘competences’ have become almost synonymous in recent policy documents, partly because they are both expressions of the increasingly instrumental approach to education, in which emphasis is placed on the economic benefits of general, as well as vocational, education, and all education is judged in terms of potential benefits for the labour market and economy.
I do not want to develop my own definitions of each of these terms—an exercise which seems pointless as others will use them in different ways. Rather, I am attempting to draw attention to what are underlying and fundamental similarities in the ways in which learning outcomes, competencies, and competences are used in many policy reforms across the world today. …
I argue that there is a broad and common trend— differently expressed in different countries, with different effects on the ground, but nonetheless common. The trend is attempting to describe activities, mainly in the workplace but sometimes also in the citizenry or family, and using these descriptors of activities as the basis of curriculum reform, as well as to serve various other goals of qualification reform. Extracted from pp.xxiv-xxvii (“A Note on Terminology”)
This publication is a “cross-country empirical study” comparing national qualifications framework in 16 countries all over the world. It was written 4 years before the previous reference by the same author, but under the supervision of ILO. It provides relevant examples of learning outcomes applied to National Qualifications Frameworks.
The selected quotes are no longer on the definition but rather on the effects - real or expected - of “learning outcomes”. The author sums up here some of the positive effects of “learning outcomes” in other fields before questioning their role within qualifications frameworks.
However, there is considerable criticism of this approach. Researchers have shown that when the attempt is made to achieve precision in the specification of learning outcomes (or competences), as in the case of National Vocational Qualifications in England, definitions of outcomes become narrow and ultimately trivial. …
Wolf (1995) provides detailed empirical evidence and theoretical arguments to show that the specification of outcomes and assessment criteria, as well as assessment on the basis of assessment criteria, were unsustainable in the English NVQs. She also demonstrates (Wolf, 2002) how the qualifications created through the NVQ framework were seen as undesirable not only by parents and young people, but also by employers, the very constituency they were primarily aimed at. Allais (2007b, 2007c) explores the same problems in the South African NQF. She argues that outcomes-based education undermines the need for specific expertise in the selection and sequencing of knowledge and skills which are essential to curriculum design, and that in the absence of strong professional associations and strong educational institutions, it leads to very varied standards. Other researchers have argued that NQFs designed according to an outcomes-led or competency-based approach are built on flawed epistemological foundations, and that although they seem appealing, in practice they are based on misunderstandings about the nature of knowledge and skills.
The notion of learning outcomes or competencies is central to the development of NQFs, and it is specifically linked to many of the claims that are made about NQFs. … the use of learning outcomes is an issue that is highly contested by researchers, but at the same time, learning outcomes are seen in many countries as the most important reform tool associated with the NQF." Extracted from pp.25-27 (part 3:”Introducing NQFs: A brief review of research and experience”)
This article is an element of the TVETipedia Glossary.