Learning outcomes are now mandated in higher education courses across Europe. However, their impact on teaching and student learning is both uncertain and an issue for debate. In this paper, we explore (1) what is meant by learning outcomes in diverse contexts and (2) whether policy and practice governing learning outcomes accord with developments in learning theories, especially regarding sociocultural approaches that have drawn significant interest since the 1990s (Engeström 1987; Lave and Wenger 1991). Shepard’s (Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4–14, 2000) publication is particularly salient to our examination due to her identification of an emerging paradigm to assist in the understanding of the relationships among teaching, learning and assessment. Employing recent work on conceptualisations of learning outcomes and a four-quadrant taxonomy (Prøitz in Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 22(2), 119–137, 2010, 2014), we discuss relevant learning theory approaches. This article is a conceptual investigation exploring the grounds for the assumption that learning can be predefined in terms of (expected) outcomes. Specifically, we discuss this assumption from the perspective of recent developments in learning theories. We argue that introducing learning outcomes predominantly for policy and management purposes may actually weaken the learning outcomes’ potential to direct teaching and learning and to improve the quality of both.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Allais, S. (2012). Claims vs. practicalities: lessons about using learning outcomes. Journal of Education and Work, 25(3), 331–354. doi:10.1080/13639080.2012.687570.
Allan, J. (1996). Learning outcomes in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 21(1), 93–108. doi:10.1080/03075079612331381487.
Au, W. (2011). Teaching under the new Taylorism: high-stakes testing and the standardization of the 21st century curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43(1), 25–45.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Baume, D. (2009). Writing and using good learning outcomes. Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan University.
Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Good education in an age of measurement. London: Paradigm Publishers.
Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32(3), 347–364.
Birenbaum, M., Breuer, K., Cascallar, E., Dochy, F., Ridgeway, J., Wiesemes, R., & Nickmans, G. (2006). A learning integrated assessment system. Educational Research Review, 1(1), 61–67.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7–75.
Black, & Wiliam. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5–31.
Bloom, B. S., Englehart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Handbook 1: cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.
Brady, L. (1996). Outcome-based education: a critique. Curriculum Journal, 7(1), 5–16.
Burke, J. (1995). Outcomes, learning and the curriculum. Implications for NVQs, GNVQs and other qualifications. London: The Falmer.
Caspersen, J., & Frølich, N. (2015). Managing learning outcomes. Leadership practices and old modes of new governance in higher education. In E. Reale & E. Primeri (Eds.), Universities in transition. Shifting institutional and organizational boundaries (pp. 187–202). Rotterdam: Sense.
Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning and instruction. In A. Kozulin, V. Finsia, C. A. Ageyev, & S. M. Miller (Eds.), Vygostky’s educational theory in cultural context (pp. 39–64). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Declaration, B. (1999). The Bologna Declaration of 19 June 1999. Joint Declaration of the European Ministers of Education. European Union, Brussels, available at: www.bologna-berlin2003.de/pdf/bologna_declaration.pdf.
Dreyfus, H., & Dreyfus, S. (1986). Mind over machine. New York: Basic Books.
Eisner, E. W. (1979). The education imagination. On the design and evaluation of school programs. New York: Macmillan.
Eisner, E. W. (2005). Reimagining schools: the selected works of Elliot W. Eisner. London: Routledge.
Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.
European Commission. (2013). Improving the quality of teaching and learning in Europe’s higher education institutions (High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education). Report to the European Commission, June 2013.
European University Association. (2006). EUA Bologna handbook: making Bologna work. In E. Froment (Ed.). Raabe.
Ewell, P. (2005). Applying learning outcomes to higher education: an overview. Paper prepared for the Hong Kong University Grants Committee. National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
Furman, G. C. (1994). Outcomes-based education and accountability. Education and Urban Society, 26(4), 417–437.
Gagné, R. M. (1974). Learning for instruction. Hinsdale: Dryden Press.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Gielen, S., Dochy, F., & Dierick, S. (2003). Evaluating the consequential validity of new modes of assessment: the influence of assessment on learning, including pre-, post-, and true assessment effects. In M. Segers, F. Dochy, & E. Cascallar (Eds.), Optimising new modes of assessment: in search of qualities and standards (pp. 37–54). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Press.
Glaser, R. (1963). Instructional technology and the measurement of learning outcomes. American Psychologist, 18, 519–521.
Gosling, D. (2001). Lost opportunity: what a credit framework would have added to the national qualification framework. Higher Education Quarterly, 55(3), 270–284.
Gosling, D., & Moon, J. (2002). How to use learning outcomes and assessment criteria. London: SEEC.
Greeno, J. G., Collins, A. M., & Resnick, L. B. (1996). Cognition and learning. In D. Berliner & R. Calfee (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 15–46). New York: Macmillan.
Handal, G., Lycke, K. H., Mårensson, K., Roxå, T., Skodvin, A., & Solbrekke, T. D. (2014). The role of academic developers in transforming Bologna regulations to a national and institutional context. International Journal for Academic Development, 19(1), 12–25.
Hargreaves, A., & Moore, S. (2000). Educational outcomes, modern and postmodern interpretations: response to Smyth and Dow. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21(1), 27–42.
Havnes, A. (2008). Peer mediation beyond the curriculum. Studies in Higher Education, 33(2), 193–204.
Havnes, A. (2013). Assessment in higher education—a CHAT perspective. In G. Wells & A. Edwards (Eds.), Pedagogy in higher education: a cultural historical analysis (pp. 84–104). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hussey, S., & Smith, P. (2003). The uses of learning outcomes. Teaching in Higher Education, 8(3), 357–368.
Hussey, S., & Smith, P. (2008). Learning outcomes. A conceptual analysis. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(1), 107–115.
James, B., & Brown, S. (2005). Grasping the TLRP nettle: preliminary analysis and some enduring issues surrounding the improvement of learning outcomes. Curriculum Journal, 16(1), 7–30.
Jessup, G. (1995). Outcome based qualifications and the implications for learning. In J. H. Burke (Ed.), Outcomes, learning and the curriculum—implications for NVQs, GNVQs and other qualifications (pp. 33–54). London: Taylor & Francis.
Kennedy, D., Hyland, Á., & Ryan, N. (2007). Writing and using learning outcomes: a practical guide. Cork: University College Cork.
Killen, R. (2000). Outcomes-based education: principles and possibilities (unpublished manuscript). University of Newcastle. http://drjj.uitm.edu.my.
King, J. A., & Evans, K. M. (1991). Can we achieve outcome-based education? Educational Leadership, 49(2), 73–75.
Knorr Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic cultures: how the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lassnigg, L. (2012). ‘Lost in translation’: learning outcomes and the governance of education. Journal of Education and Work, 25(3), 299–330.
Mager, R. F. (1975). Preparing objectives for instruction. Belmont: Fearon.
Marton, F., Hounsell, S., & Entwistle, N. (1984). The experience of learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
Melton, R. (1996). Learning outcomes for higher education: some key issues. British Journal of Educational Studies, 44(4), 409–425.
Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14–37.
Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: a third decade of research (Vol. 2). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Popper, K. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. London: Routledge.
Prøitz, T. S. (2010). Learning outcomes—what are they? Who defines them? When and where are they defined? Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 22(2), 119–137.
Prøitz, T. S. (2014). Conceptualisations of learning outcomes—an explorative study of policymakers, teachers and scholars. PhD thesis, Series of dissertations submitted to the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Oslo, No. 194.
Prøitz, T. S. (2015). Learning outcomes as a key concept in policy documents throughout policy changes. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 59(3), 275–296. doi:10.1080/00313831.2014.904418.
Purser, L. (2003). Report on Council of Europe seminar on recognition issues in the Bologna Process, Lisbon, April 2002. In S. Bergan (Ed.), Recognition issues in the Bologna Process (pp. 23–30). Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.
Ramsden, P. (1992/2003). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.
Resnick, L. B., & Resnick, D. P. (1992). Assessing the thinking curriculum: new tools for educational reform. In B. Gifford & M. C. O’Connor (Eds.), Changing Assessments: alternative views of aptitude, achievement and instruction. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Shepard, L. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4–14.
Smythe, J., & Dow, A. (1998). What’s wrong with outcomes? Spotter planes, action plans and steerage of the educational workplace. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 19(3), 291–302.
Snyder, B. R. (1971). The hidden curriculum. New York: Knoph.
Spady, W. G. (1988). Organizing for results: the basis of authentic restructuring and reform. Educational Leadership, 46(2), 4–8.
Spady, W. G. (1994). Outcome-based education. Critical issues and answers. Arlington: American Association of School Administrators.
Spady, W. G., & Marshall, K. J. (1991). Beyond traditional outcome-based education. Educational Leadership, 49(2), 67–72.
Stensaker, B. (2008). Endringsarbeid i høyere utdanning: nye konfliktlinjer og nye muligheter [Working towards change in higher education: new lines of conflict and new possibilities]. Norsk Pedagogisk Tidsskrift, 6, 417–426.
Torrance, H. (2007). Assessment as learning? How the use of explicit learning objectives, assessment criteria and feedback in post-secondary education and training can come to dominate learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 14(3), 281–294.
Tulviste, P., & Wertsch, J. V. (1994). Official and unofficial histories: the case of Estonia. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 4(4), 311–329.
Tyler, R. W. (1950). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar (Eds. and trans.). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Young, M. F. D. (2003). National qualification frameworks as a global phenomenon: a comparative perspective. Journal of Education and Work, 16(3), 223–237.
Young, M., & Allais, S. (2011). The shift to outcomes based frameworks. Key problems from a critical perspective. Austrian Open Access Journal of Adult Education, 14, 03/1–03/10. http://erwachsenenbildung.at/magazin/11-14/meb11-14.pdf.
Zimmerman, B. J., & Schunk, D. H. (Eds.). (2001). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement. Theoretical perspectives (2nd ed.). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest (financial or non-financial). The analysis is theoretical and does not include informants.
About this article
Cite this article
Havnes, A., Prøitz, T.S. Why use learning outcomes in higher education? Exploring the grounds for academic resistance and reclaiming the value of unexpected learning. Educ Asse Eval Acc 28, 205–223 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11092-016-9243-z
- Learning outcomes
- Learning theory
- Qualification frameworks
- Curriculum alignment