Learning outcomes

The notion of "learning outcomes", has been in use for several years in UK, but has appeared more recently in the European landscape, first in the vocational education and training sector and is now moving progressively into all sectors, in particular into higher education. In the early stages of the European educational strategy, greater significance in the European rhetoric with the launch of debates on Europass, on the European Qualification Framework, on the Common Principles for validation of non formal and informal learning or, more recently, on ECVET.
In higher education, the reflection on learning outcomes was introduced quite early in this process. In 2003, the Berlin Communiqué from the Ministers responsible for higher education stated that: ‘Ministers encourage the Member States to elaborate a framework of comparable and compatible qualifications for their higher education systems, which should seek to describe qualifications in terms of workload, level, learning outcomes, competences and profile". In 2004, the "ECTS user's guide" gave a definition of learning outcomes: "credits in ECTS can only be obtained after successful completion of the work required and appropriate assessment of the learning outcomes achieved. Learning outcomes are sets of competences, expressing what the student will know, understand or be able to do after completion of a process of learning, long or short". Learning outcomes were also at the core of the work of the  Tuning project which defined learning outcomes as "statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate after a completion of a process of learning". By 2005, the emphasis on learning outcomes was much  clearer in the Bologna Process:  in the Bergen Communiqué when Ministers adopted the overarching framework of three cycles for higher education qualifications (B-M-D), they stated that descriptors for each cycle would be based on learning outcomes and competences.
The report presented in July 2004 in Edinburg for the UK Bologna Seminar by Stephen Adam ("Using learning outcomes, a consideration of the nature, role, application and implications for European education of employing learning outcomes at the local, national and international levels") is the first document which has attempted to provide a global overview of the definition and the use of learning outcomes in Member States. Adam proposed a definition of learning outcomes which synthesised those in use in different countries and/or promoted by different actors: "A learning outcome is a written statement of what the successful student/learner is expected to do at the end of the module/course unit, or qualification".
A second report, to be published by CEDEFOP, widens the scope of the analysis to include the Education and Training 2010 programme; it looks at developments in the use of learning outcomes across the whole field of lifelong learning. (Tom Leney and Jean Gordon - CEDEFOP learning outcomes study). It demonstrates how the notion of learning outcomes is becoming a sort of common reference between the European initiatives: "the EQF and national qualifications frameworks tend to define their levels according to descriptors of knowledge, skills and competences or some other conceptualisation of learning outcomes. Recognition depends in most cases on what a person has learnt to know or do - or become - outside the formal sphere of learning institutions and their qualifications. Credit, where it is used, is increasingly awarded for outcomes that have been achieved, rather than simply for the completion of a period of learning. Quality assurance measures may depend partly on criteria such as qualification levels and robustness and efficiency of bureaucratic procedures, but governments seek increasingly to know whether the learning outcomes achieved by students are also improving".
Therefore, this report places learning outcomes at the heart of the European system, identifying complementary functions for this "tool" as reference level descriptors, as a tool relating theoretical and practical learning, as a tool to identify and assess learner's cognitive, skills-based and affective learning, as a vehicle for quality assurance, for legibility and transparency, as a reforming device, developing coherence in lifelong learning.