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Active Learning in Higher Education
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DOI: 10.1177/1469787402003003003
2002 3: 220 Active Learning in Higher Education
Trevor Hussey and Patrick Smith
The Trouble with Learning Outcomes
 
 
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220
The trouble with
learning
outcomes
TREVOR HUSSEY & PATRI CK SMI TH
BuckinghamshireChilternsUniversity College,UK
ABSTRACT Recent decades have seen an increasing stress on the
need to monitor and manage educators, and hold them to account.
This article argues that, while learning outcomes can be valuable if
properly used, they have been misappropriated and adopted widely
at all levels within the education system to facilitate the managerial
process. This has led to their distortion. The claim that they can be
made precise by being written with a prescribed vocabulary of
special descriptors so as to serve as objective, measurable devices for
monitoring performance, is fundamentally mistaken, and they may
be damaging to education when used in this way. After a brief sketch
of the background to the notion of learning outcomes, arguments
are presented to show their vacuity and uselessness when misused
in this way, and explanations of their inadequacies are offered.
KEYWORDS: accountability, commodification, critical
evaluation, descriptors, knowledge, learning outcomes,
levels, management, monitoring, understanding
Introduction
It is widely accepted that the major expansion of higher education in recent
decades is to be welcomed: the benefits it has brought seem both obvious
and laudable. None the less there is a perception among many informed
observers that all is not well. While the general direction of the change has
been welcome, it has been accompanied by less admirable, even malign,
developments. There are maggots in the apple.
One set of problems has arisen because it is easy for politicians to offer
– and for the public to accept – a generous expansion of university places,
but far more difficult for them to provide the additional resources. Reduced
per capita funding, the removal of student grants, the introduction of tuition
fees and loans, and the consequent pressure on students to find employment
while they study, have all transformed the educational experience.
active learning
in higher education
Copyright ©2002 The Institute
for Learning and Teaching in
Higher Education and
SAGE Publications (London,
Thousand Oaks, CA and
New Delhi)
Vol 3(3): 220–233 [1469-7874
(200211) 3:3;220–233;028176]
ARTICLE
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Alongside, and not entirely unconnected, there have been profound
changes in the educational institutions. To ensure that the increased expen-
diture, however inadequate, is used properly, universities and colleges must
not only be made to adopt modern management techniques to ensure effi-
ciency, they must also be exposed to the latter-day elixir for all economic ills
– the rigours of the market place. Educational institutions need a bureaucracy
capable of managing themselves and able to respond to the external pressures
for accountability from the government funding body, the QAA, the Research
Assessment Exercises, league tables, employers, a critical press and com-
petition from other institutions. The new managerialism has created a situ-
ation in which the economic tail is vigorously wagging the educational dog.
Changes in management bring about changes in what is managed. In
education there have been two major transformations. First, and in crude
terms, education has become a commodity, and the ‘products’ it offers to
its ‘customers’ have had to be commodified: divided into distinct, measur-
able quantities or modules each capable of being ‘bought’ by prescribed
units of assessment. Second, the processes of education have had to become
capable of being monitored, audited and evaluated. In this situation teach-
ing staff must adhere to the rubric of transparency and state clearly what
they are going to teach, and be held accountable for their success or failure.
Modularization, credit accumulation, transferable credits, vocational train-
ing, NVQs, the specification of learning outcomes and transferable skills
and criteria of assessment are all, in various ways, concomitant with the
new managerial ethos.
These developments have been evaluated and criticized by numerous
observers. The changes have been seen as a manifestation of late capitalism
(Barnett, 1994; Winter, 1995; Edwards, 1998; Shore and Selwyn, 1998),
or as an assertion of the power of the state over education at the expense
of the autonomy of universities (Bowles and Gintis, 1986; Slater and
Tapper, 1994; Edwards, 1998). It has been argued that the changes distort
and undermine knowledge by reducing it to commodified, decontextual-
ized information (Tsoukas, 1997) and that the increasing emphasis on
auditing and transparency in education has led to the decline of trust and
the disempowerment and demoralization of academics (Power, 1997).
Accompanying these changes and their consequences there is an uneasy
sense of déjà vu. Holt (1981) described the ‘climate of doubt’ he identified
in relation to accountability in schools and suggested that ‘The feast of
accountability celebrates the death of trust’. Twenty years later Strathern
(2000: 314) stated that:
The language of indicators takes over the language of service. Or, to return to
the audit process, the language of accountability takes over the language of
trust.
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One is reminded of Santayana’s dictum concerning those who fail to learn
from their own history.
However, although these kinds of criticism are significant and may be
seen as damning by many, they will not impress those who favour the free-
market or who feel that making academics accountable and subject to the
rigours of modern management techniques is long overdue. Consequently,
a better approach may be to try to show that some of the central features
of the changes are simply mistaken: they are distorting education because
they are based on a misunderstanding and misuse of some central concepts.
In this article we will focus on learningoutcomesbecause they have become
a vital component of the new managerial regime. Their use is now widely
mandated within the educational system, being employed at primary,
secondary and tertiary levels; they are lauded by managers and insisted
upon by the school inspectorate and the QAA: they are clearly seen as a
good idea. However, we will argue that, while learning outcomes have
legitimate uses, they have been misappropriated for managerial purposes
and that this misuse has led to their distortion to the point that they are
presently ill-conceived and incapable of doing what is claimed for them.
Learning outcomes, and the ideas related to them, are in danger of becom-
ing little more than spurious devices to facilitate auditing at the expense of
the educational process.
This critique must not be misunderstood. We are not denying the need
for educators to indicate to, or discuss with, their pupils what is to be
covered in a teaching session or what they are expected to learn, but we
are claiming that the use of learning outcomes, as currently understood,
can be damaging to education. Learning outcomes have value when prop-
erly conceived and used in ways that respect their limitations and exploit
their virtues, but they are damaging to education if seen as precise pre-
scriptions that must be spelled out in detail before teaching can begin and
which are objective and measurable devices suitable for monitoring edu-
cational practices. Nor are we denying that education has to be managed:
the debate is about how not whether.
Learning outcomes
The process that has led us to our present conception of learning outcomes
can be traced back at least to the rapid expansion of secondary and tertiary
education in the mid-20th century. The greatly increased public expendi-
ture encouraged the feeling that educators had to make their practices more
‘scientific’ and accountable. Opaque and woolly ideas about education had
to be made precise; what was implicit must be explicit and the subjective
intuitions of educators must be replaced with objective, measurable criteria.
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Education was not only to be improved it was to be made more manage-
able, even – or preferably – by non-academics.
There followed attempts to analyse the nature of education and the edu-
cated person (Peters, 1966, 1967; Dearden et al., 1972); the concept of an
ideal and an aim (Dearden, 1968; Langford, 1968), and to the distinction
between aims and objectives (Hirst, 1974). However, it was soon recog-
nized that such broad topics, important though they were, could not offer
precise guidance to those who stood in front of students. We might specify
aims and objectives with exactness, but they still seemed to be tainted with
subjectivity and interpreted as statements of what teachers or lecturers
want, hope or aspire to achieve. For the sake of objectivity we needed to
be able to specify observable products of the activities of the educators: i.e.
learningoutcomes. These can be seen as the products of the learning process
within the pupil (Gagne, 1974; Ing, 1978) and can be directly related to
assessment. Our objectives can be identified with our expected learning
outcomes, but what we observe in our assessments are our actual learning
outcomes. At last we appear to have something that is precise, explicit and
objectively measurable.
Little wonder that learning outcomes have become very fashionable
amongst educational theorists and now feature in the guidance of school
inspectors and the QAA (Moon, 1999). They are used to specify precisely
what a student shall know or understand, and what skill or capacities they
will have at the end of a specific period of learning. Generally they are used
to specify the minimum standard of performance acceptable but, if this is
so, there seems no reason in principle why they cannot also be used to
specify what is required to achieve the different grades to be awarded. Now
the way is open to distinguish between generic, specific, basic, transferable
and non-transferable skills; different kinds of knowledge and understand-
ing and so on: all specifiable as outcomes and hence available for objective
assessment.
Once all this is done, it seems, teaching can be tied to the assessment
with unprecedented precision. Our assessment tasks can be derived from
our learning outcomes: we can design them to measure what our students
can do. Not only that, we can now draw up assessment criteria which can
then be distributed to assessors and assessed alike.The whole process, being
explicit and transparent, can now be audited and performances of both
teachers and students can be evaluated. The situation has been reached in
which what happens in the classroom and in the minds of the students and
their teachers is wholly conducive to systematic monitoring, auditing and
management.
However, there are complications. First, to achieve this advance, learning
outcomes must be specified with precision.Second, learning outcomes, like
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objectives before them, must differ according to the level of teaching and
learning concerned. Furthermore, if we use learning outcomes to specify
quality of work, at any one of these levels we need to be able to distinguish
between the different grades. Even more important from a managerial
viewpoint is that we need consistency and uniformity: a shared language.
The solution of these problems, it is argued, lies in the wording of the
learning outcomes: we need a vocabulary of precise descriptorsto enable us
to specify the outcomes exactly and to distinguish clearly between the levels
and perhaps even grades. For example, we might specify that, at one level,
the child or student must be able to describe, recall, name, and repeat; while
at the next they must be able to define, comprehend, understand and
explain; and at a third level they must be able to analyse, evaluate, criticize,
compare, integrate, organize, infer and deduce.
The overall thrust however remains the same: armed with learning out-
comes written in this precise language we can, at last, state clearly what will
be learned during a given unit of teaching, and exactly how it can be
assessed. In designing our courses or modules we now have a useful guide
to what is expected from a learning activity, both for the teachers and the
taught. The progress of the student, the suitability of the teaching method
and the effectiveness of the teacher, can all be determined objectively: the
entire enterprise can be ‘tracked’ and audited, even by someone completely
ignorant of the discipline concerned.
Some criticisms of learning outcomes
A preliminary point to notice is that, while it is obvious that learning out-
comes are strongly favoured by the managers of educational institutions,
by Ofsted and the QAA, it is not so evident that they are either favoured or
used willingly by teachers, at least at the tertiary level, and possibly at other
levels of education. We know of no empirical evidence to substantiate this
claim, but anecdotal evidence suggests that, while some academics have
embraced learning outcomes, many design their courses or modules by
considering the content of the syllabus, the contact time allotted, the level
or year, the appropriate texts to be used and the best mode of assessment.
They may state their expected learning outcomes if obliged to do so, but
this is seen as a chore, rather than a useful exercise. Once the QAA visit is
over they will hardly be looked at again. If learning outcomes are so
practical and useful, why is there this resistance?
There may be several explanations for this lack of enthusiasm for learn-
ing outcomes amongst many academics. It is possible that they are just lazy,
or that they are reluctant to specify precise and ascertainable outcomes for
fear that this will expose their poor teaching. However, it may also be that
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academics are not convinced by the virtues of learning outcomes recited
earlier. We suggest that they may have good reasons: there are several
important problems worth exploring.
Learning outcomes are claimed to be precise and specific statements,
which can be objectively assessed. This may be true if they are simple
descriptions of the learner’s behaviour that specify the content of the
performance, for example ‘Will count to ten without errors’; ‘Will recite
Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop’. But, apart from the fact that even these can be
done well or hesitatingly, with or without understanding and so forth, such
learning outcomes are of questionable value even at primary school level
and almost entirely irrelevant to higher education. To make them applicable
and useful, they need to specify knowledge, understanding, skills and
abilities, rather than simple behavioural responses, and to indicate the
quality or standard of these. However, this is where the troubles begin.
The first objection to learning outcomes is that their clarity, explicitness
and objectivity are largely spurious. They give the impression of precision
only because we unconsciously interpret them against a prior understand-
ing of what is required. In brief, they are parasitic upon the very know-
ledge and understanding that they are supposed to be explicating.
Consider factual knowledge (‘knowledge that’ or ‘propositional know-
ledge’): it would seem that the relevant descriptors are such terms as
‘describe’,‘name’,‘recall’,‘define’, etc. But knowledge allows of degrees; it
can be detailed and precise or crude and vague. Given the learning outcome
‘Will describe the structure and function of the human ear’, if a student
wrote ‘The ear is a hole in the head where the sound goes in’, this would
undeniably fit the descriptor, but it is unlikely to be acceptable at first-year
undergraduate level. To make the descriptors precise we have to interpret
their meaning and this involves adding an understanding of what quality
or standard is appropriate at the relevant educational level, but this is what
the learning outcome is supposed to be specifying. To qualify ‘describe’ by
adding ‘fully’,‘in detail’,‘accurately’ and so on will not achieve the desired
precision because the meanings of these terms are just as relative to the
situation, subject matter or level. For reasons to be explained in the next
section, as a general rule, it is neither practical nor useful to try to specify
learning outcomes with the kind of precision that is being sought: they will
remain ambiguous whatever descriptors are used. If learning outcomes are
used to specify grades for work at a given educational level, then mutatis
mutandisthe same argument applies.
Similar problems arise concerning understanding (Biggs, 1999). Here
the appropriate descriptors might be such words as ‘explain’, ‘exemplify’,
‘defend’, ‘argue’, ‘infer’, ‘interpret’, ‘illustrate’ and so on. However, we can
understand the processes of fossilization or the causes of the Second World
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War in detailed and subtle, or shallow and superficial ways and, in turn, the
meaning of these terms will depend upon whether we are writing an A-
level answer or an undergraduate essay. Since understanding can be pro-
found or superficial, sophisticated or naïve, the descriptors, and hence the
learning outcomes in which they are used, can only be interpreted in a
precise way if we already know what they must signify at each level or
grade. Again our claim is that this knowledge cannot be made explicit
however careful we are with a prescribed vocabulary of descriptors.
The same arguments apply to the specification of analytical and evalu-
ative skills. If the learning outcome for a third-year teaching session on an
English Literature degree specified that students will be able to evaluate
critically Thomas Hardy’s At CastleBoterel, we might be impressed by a
student who made an elaborate attempt to employ Heidegger’s notion of
Daseinand a feminist interpretation of guilt, but would fail a student who
simply said that the poem was old fashioned rubbish. However, both are
critical evaluations and we praise one and dismiss the other only because
we know roughly what is to count as a critical evaluation at this level: the
descriptors themselves do not tell us this. Both teacher and student need
this knowledge to interpret the learning outcomes.The student has to judge
what is required by reference to the levels set by the teaching, seminar dis-
cussions, reading and so on. The learning outcome itself indicates only the
general nature of what is expected.
This suggests that a reply to these criticisms might be that we can at least
use learning outcomes to give a general guide to learners and teachers about
what is expected at the different levels. That is to say, even if the descrip-
tors areas vague and imprecise as has been claimed here, they can still be
used to distinguish between the different kinds of performance that are
demanded as the student progresses. For example, at degree level we might
say that in the first year learning outcomes would be written using such
descriptors as ‘describe’, ‘contrast’, ‘compare’, ‘summarize’, ‘illustrate’,
‘demonstrate’ and ‘present’; while for the second year they would employ
such descriptors as ‘understand’, ‘explain’, ‘elucidate’, ‘solve’, ‘show’ and
‘deduce’. At third-year level we might require students to ‘analyse’, ‘evalu-
ate’,‘criticize’,‘examine’,‘synthesise’,‘resolve’,‘construct a coherent view’
and ‘design’. In this way students can be given a general idea of how their
assessed output must change as they progress through their degree.
At first sight here is something quite plausible about this response. Surely
we would, for example, accept that undergraduates might reasonably be
asked to show that they can explain a theory or show understanding of a
mathematical formula, while we would expect much more at masters level.
The difference may not be stated as precisely and explicitly as we might
hope, but it is still useful.
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However, this leads to our second main criticism of learning outcomes:
they can be insensitive to the requirements of different disciplines. The
pattern of learning and the skills appropriate at different levels vary from
subject to subject. It may be that in, say, the physical sciences and medicine,
it is quite appropriate for most first-year degree work to be descriptive, with
critical evaluation of alternative descriptions and theories left to the third
year. But even here this would not be appropriate in, say, discussing the
results of case studies or experimental work, where some explanation and
critical thinking would be required even in the first year. In a literature
degree, students would be expected to evaluate and criticize from level one
and, in philosophy, if students spent the first year simply describing what
Plato or Russell said, they would not be doing philosophy, since it is by its
very nature a critical, analytic activity. The sequence identified by the
descriptors ‘describe’,‘understand’ and ‘analyse’ may well represent a seam-
less progression in cognitive terms, but it remains at odds with the empiri-
cal knowledge of practitioners and suggests a uni-directional movement
that distorts the real process.
Imagine the indignation of someone who has their proposed masters
degree in evolutionary psychology rejected because one of their learning out-
comes required students to understandmodern Darwinian evolution theory.
‘Understand’, they might be told, is not a masters level descriptor. But the
requirement to understand such complex things as quantum field theory,
relativity theory or biological evolution is enormously demanding: such
understanding is possessed by very few people. Similarly, to describethe
mechanism of transmitting sounds across the middle ear is not of the same
order of difficulty as describing the mechanisms involved in the release of
insulin from the ␤ cells of the islets of Langerhans. These difficulties in speci-
fying descriptors are not just confined to science: it would not be unreason-
able to ask a masters student to demonstrate understanding of Eliot’s TheWaste
Land, or of the significance of his pacifism in the music of Robert Simpson.
If the proponents of learning outcomes reply that, of course, the wording
of the outcomes must be appropriate to the discipline concerned, then they
must concede that a prescriptive list of descriptors is of little use to us. The
specification of learning outcomes at different levels will have to be
different for different subjects, and for different topics within a subject.
Again the vital point here is that, whatever wording we choose, we can only
interpret it in the light of a prior understanding of what quality or stan-
dard is appropriate in a given subject at a given level – yet this is what the
learning outcomes are supposed to be stating with precision.
However, the advocate of learning outcomes might reply that these criti-
cisms miss the point. Of course theteacher must formulate his or her learn-
ing outcomes with reference to their background understanding of their
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subject and their experience of teaching and marking at the various levels
and, of course, they will be merely spelling out in precise terms what they
already know. However, the studentsdo not have this expertise and so need
the learning outcomes and assessment criteria as a precise guide to what is
expected of them.
This reply is mistaken for two reasons. First, as argued above, the ‘precise
terms’ are only precise if interpreted by means of the background under-
standing and experience. Without this they are largely vacuous. This is true
even if we try to show appreciation of the different disciplines and topics
in our choice of descriptors. Second, it is becausethe students do not have
this expertise that the learning outcomes will be of little use to them if used
in the formulaic ways prescribed by their advocates and supported by the
technologies of audit and review. It isuseful to have the topic of a lecture
or teaching session specified at the outset, and this involves indicating what
the students are expected to learn, but the depth and detail of the know-
ledge, or the level and sophistication of the skills, will be established by the
teaching session itself, the learning activity involved and the kind of reading
or exercises recommended.
Similarly, a student may benefit by being advised to be more critical and
less descriptive, or more original and less derivative, but this advice only
has meaning within the context of their previous performance and with
reference to the level at which they are studying. The above mentioned
terms ‘more’ and ‘less’ used in giving the advice to students gain their
meaning by being relative to the student’s past performance in the specific
activities concerned. Once again, learning outcomes are only precise and
informative when interpreted by means of the experience of the audience.
The idea that learning outcomes can be framed in advance so as to exactly
specify what is to be achieved is profoundly mistaken.
A third argument against the employment of learning outcomes is that
even if students are enabled to interpret them in the ways indicated above,
thus giving a clear sense to their meaning, they may actually restrict the
subsequent educational outcomes. There are two main ways in which this
may happen. First, if they are used to specify the pass/ fail threshold (Moon,
1999) then students may aim merely to achieve that level, thus purchasing
their credit points at the lowest price. Although this is rational behaviour
in a market place it is not a sensible or proper approach to education. The
dangers of focusing on thresholds or on what might minimally be achieved
have long been recognized (Whitehead, 1929).
Second, the emphasis on planned learning outcomes ignores, and may
even squeeze out, the emergent learning outcomes that can be so reward-
ing (Megginson, 1994, 1996).Indeed, it may be argued that the most fruit-
ful and valuable feature of higher education is the emergence of ideas, skills
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and connections, which were unforeseen, even by the teacher. Such events
are rare enough without the additional restrictions of specified outcomes,
imposed upon those involved in the learning process. Entwistle et al.
(2000) point out that, in practice, unplanned diversions from the intended
focus of classroom activities account for over 60% of changes that occur:
good teachers seize on such moments. In brief, the commodification of
knowledge and the attempt to define learning outcomes precisely are anti-
thetical to good educational practice.
If these arguments are sound they show that it is unjustifiable for those
who manage, validate or assess courses designed by academics, to insist that
such courses should have learning outcomes written in certain ways, using
a prescribed set of descriptors. There are no formulas for writing course or
module outlines; no substitute for the experience and expertise of the edu-
cators, and no way of giving students exact and useful instructions without
presupposing their ability to interpret them appropriately. At best, learning
outcomes can only be statements about what topic or fragment of the
syllabus is to be covered by a teaching session, and what kinds of skills and
capacities students will be expected to display in respect to it. The content
can be stated more or less precisely; the quality of the skills and capacities
can only be grasped from the context. Perhaps this explains the afore-
mentioned prejudices of the academics in their resistance to learning outcomes.
An explanation of the problems
If we accept that the purported precision, objectivity and measurability of
learning outcomes are largely mythical, it is tempting to explain this by
retreating into a mist of holistic waffle about professional experience and
the ineffability of the intuitive wisdom of academics. However, we suggest
that there are better explanations. One is obvious: the meaning of the evalu-
ative terms used to specify the quality of knowledge, understanding or
analyses are always relative to a context and so cannot be used to specify
absolutes. But, there is another more fundamental explanation.
Education is a social practice that has developed in a largely piecemeal
manner over many years and differently in different cultures. Some of its
evolution has been the result of planning and intentional action, including
political policies; some has emerged by unreflective happenstance. What we
see as being worth including in education and what we perceive to be
appropriate methods and levels of teaching have evolved in similar ways.
Overwhelmingly, the most common way for someone to know and under-
stand the intricacies of this social practice is to be socialized into it by
passing through it and by working within it. By doing, say, a history degree,
a person has the opportunity to learn what is currently seen as worthy of
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inclusion in a history degree; what kinds and levels of knowledge, under-
standing and skills are required and how they are to be assessed. In addition
they can acquire values, beliefs and attitudes. By entering the teaching pro-
fession this knowledge is enhanced and supplemented by experience of the
processes that bring about changes within the practices. Comparisons
between institutions and the system of external examiners helps to spread
new practices and share standards.
In specifying what is acquired by a person who engages in education it
is convenient to recall Ryle’s (1949) distinction between ‘knowledge that’
(knowledge of facts expressed in propositions) and ‘knowledge how’
(learned skills and abilities). Some of what is learned is ‘knowledge that’:
this would include much of the content of academic syllabuses, rules of
procedure, facts about practice and professional duties and so on. However,
the bulk of what is acquired would be ‘knowledge how’. This would
include such things as teaching skills, and the ability to judge the level at
which to pitch a lecture; the suitability of teaching materials, how much
material to put into a teaching session; pace of delivery; the standards of
performance of a student; the level of attention in a seminar and so on. A
lecturer may know thathis or her students need to be more critical and less
descriptive in their responses, but this is based upon the lecturer’s know-
ledge howto judge performance at that level, and what he or she does to
change their behaviour will depend upon his or her ability to teach.
The relationship between ‘knowledge how’ and ‘knowledge that’ is
complex. Some skills and abilities can easily be described in propositional
form: for example the ability to change a car wheel or operate an overhead
projector. Many other kinds of ‘knowledge how’ can be translated into
propositional form, but the result is so cumbersome and complicated that
it is worthless. It may be possible to describe in words how to tie up a shoe
lace, ride a bicycle or use a spokeshave, but no one would think of learn-
ing these skills in this manner: they would learn by being shown and by
subsequent practice. There are other skills and abilities which probably
cannot be translated into ‘knowledge that’: either in practice – as in a full
account of how a native English speaker generates a full range of gram-
matically correct sentences – or perhaps even in principle, such as our
capacity to devise mathematical proofs.
We suggest that the demand that teachers and academics formulate
precise learning outcomes, amounts to the requirement to translate ‘know-
ledge how’ into ‘knowledge that’ – into a set of statements – and that this
is largely either fatuous or impossible. It may be both possible and useful
to specify the content of a teaching session or the general kind of
skill, ability or capacity that will be required of the student by the end of
it, but this is not what learning outcomes are restricted to doing. They are
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supposed to specify precisely what quality of knowledge, understanding,
skills etc., the student will acquire. However, as we have argued above, to
be able to judge what is to count as appropriate knowledge, the level of
understanding, the quality of analysis, the degree of skill and so on, requires
skills based on experience which do not lend themselves to translation of
a useful kind.
For example, a sociology lecturer may have to judge the level of analyti-
cal abilities required from a final-year student in an evaluation of Marx’s
theory of alienation, or a craftsman may have to assess the skills of a second-
year student in cabinet making. These judgements have to be based on their
respective experience: it involves, primarily, ‘knowledge how’. This ability
to judge may either be impossible to capture in propositional form or may
require such lengthy and convoluted language as to be pointless. What is
important is that the teacher knows how to recognize the required quality
of performance; can give examples his or herself of that standard of work,
and can get the student to see how to do the same.
When designing a module, a lecture or a lesson plan, the academic can
specify the content and the level (first year, second year, etc.) and even the
general nature of the knowledge or skills to be displayed – such as descrip-
tive, analytic, evaluative and so on – but the quality of these can only be
left implicit in the level specified. We cannot dictate that certain descriptors
shall apply at certain levels because this will differ from content to content,
and we cannot specify the degree of skill or quality of understanding
without referring back to the level, since each descriptor means something
different at each level. The way to give guidance to students is to specify
the content, level and type of skill and to indicate the quality by compari-
son with what they have already achieved and with what is taking place in
the teaching they are experiencing. This is precise, explicit and objective,
but in the way appropriate to skills and abilities, rather than in pseudo-
scientific jargon.
Conclusion
As we sketched briefly in the introduction, learning outcomes are only one
component of a huge and complex body of changes that have been intro-
duced into our education system in recent years. They have been mis-
appropriated to serve in the development of a system that is more suited to
modern management techniques, and to survival in a competitive market
economy. Learning outcomes have become a central component of the new
approach because they are essential to the commodification of learning and
hence to the desire to audit and monitor the performance of those involved.
Despite their supposed importance, we have argued that the idea of
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learning outcomes as promulgated throughout the educational system in
recent years, is profoundly mistaken. Their alleged explicit clarity, precision
and objectivity are largely spurious. Those academics and teachers who
have had to use them have overcome this vacuity either by merely feigning
compliance or by implicitly (and perhaps even unconsciously) interpreting
them in terms of their existing knowledge and experience. The managers
who have insisted upon them, generally in response to the demands of
outside agencies, have either not understood them well enough to notice
their emptiness, or they too have unwittingly interpreted their meaning in
the light of their knowledge of the subjects concerned. We have also argued
that even where they are given content, their effects may be undesirable in
educational terms.
However, we have not been entirely dismissive of the idea of learning
outcomes. There is some obvious use in specifying what aspects of the
content of a subject students will be expected to learn and what general
kinds of skills and capacities they will be expected to display. The proper
interpretation of these outcomes must emerge from the context and pre-
vailing activities and experiences of the students: they cannot be, in them-
selves, either clear or precise and do not specify objectively measurable
entities.
Learning outcomes, understood and interpreted in this more flexible and
practical way, will not lend themselves to strict auditing, but they may open
the way to a better understanding of the process of education. In particu-
lar we hope, in a future paper, to develop an account of learning outcomes,
including those that emerge during a learning session, that is more realis-
tic and conducive to educational purposes.
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Biographical notes
TREVOR HUSSEY is Principal Lecturer in Philosophy in the Faculty of Applied Social
Science and Humanities at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College.
PATRI CK SMI TH is Professor of Learning and Teaching in the Department of Quality
Enhancement and Development at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College.
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