Alternative perspectives on learning outcomes: Challenges for assessment

Curriculum Journal 12/2008; 19(4):243-254. DOI: 10.1080/09585170802509831


In discussing the relationship between curriculum and assessment it is commonly argued that assessment should be aligned to curriculum or, alternatively, that they should be congruent with each other. This article explores that relationship in five educational contexts in the UK and in Europe, ranging across school education, workplace learning, vocational education and higher education. Four main themes are highlighted: construct definition, progression, assessment procedures, and system-level accountability. What emerges from the five case studies under review is a multi-layered process of knowledge being constructed in diverse ways at different levels in each context. The article concludes that, rather than thinking in terms of either alignment or congruence, these relationships are better understood in terms of non-linear systems embracing curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

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Available from: Mary James, Feb 08, 2015
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    ABSTRACT: As a head of an academic development and practice unit it is with some trepidation that I set out to write this critique of learning outcomes. For the learning outcome has become the bed-rock of the infra-structure that determines quality assurance processes in higher education in the UK and elsewhere. In theory, they should be used to design courses, determine appropriate learning opportunities, measure the level of courses and provide the standard against which students" achievement can be measured. In this article I will argue that the learning outcome is a false god, to whom too much attention is paid and probably by the wrong people. It is important to say, that I am not the first to make this case, but do so in the hope of raising a greater level of critical discourse on what has become a hegemony within higher education. The learning outcome, purpose and origin The learning outcome in higher education can be seen as a development from outcome based education within the vocational sector (e.g. National Vocational Qualifications a.k.a. NVQs). In the vocational sector learning outcomes based on competencies are used to underpin the assessment of job related skills. Once the notion of having to account for learning had been set in place the adoption of a system related to one already introduced into parts of the education system was relatively simple and as James (2005) notes, the learning outcome is a seductively simple concept, it seems to 'do what it says on the can' but does it? The pedagogic purposes of learning outcomes are clear, in that they are designed to give a clear indication of the learning destiny, that the learning opportunity provider intends the learner to reach. In doing-so they give power to the learner, as armed with knowledge of the destiny the learner can if they wish, chart their own journey to this destination. It is this potential for empowerment which allow the proponents of outcomes based education to claim that is "student-centred" and in contrast to the previous models where often the destination was perceived to be hidden, and based largely on what teachers teach. Curriculum models that use learning outcomes, as logic would dictate, try to ensure that assessments test that students have reached the destination described by the learning outcomes. A further development to this is seen in the constructive alignment model of Biggs (1996). In this model the totality of the curriculum and assessment is aligned with the learning outcomes. Indeed it is Biggs"s model that underpins much of the UKs quality assurance system. The learning outcome is used to define the level learning (Davis 2000 and it is worth noting that it also used to describe learning and differing scales of opportunity, for example at the level of the individual session, unit or course.
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