The learning outcomes approach has replaced the content-based approach as well as the learning or teaching objectives. The reason was a change in thinking about education, in which the pupil, not the teacher, started to be central, as well as the learning process rather than the teaching process. What the student was to learn was considered to be of paramount importance – what knowledge to acquire, what skills to develop, and what social competences to develop. You can read more about these changes in the 2012 State of Education Report and Cedefop’s 2008 publication.
This approach has been implemented in the education and higher education systems in Poland. In 2009, it was in general education, in 2011 in higher education and in 2012 in vocational education. This approach was considered crucial in qualifications, including market qualifications, included in the Integrated Qualifications System, which has been operating in Poland since 2016.
Learning outcomes define what an individual knows, understands and is able to do through learning in different contexts. Various contexts can be understood as: formal education (at school, university), non-formal education (at courses, training), as well as informal learning (independent learning at home, at work).
Learning outcomes take two forms:
- a) text – descriptions of knowledge, skills and social competences that are requirements for the person who wants to confirm the learning outcomes. Compliance with these requirements is checked in the validation process, which leads to confirmation of achievements and obtaining qualifications; learning outcomes in this form are a key element in the description of qualifications;
- b) elements of knowledge, skills and social competences acquired by a person (e.g. pupil, student, intern, employee); these are acquired through the learning process and can be validated through validation – then we call them achievements.
One of the dimensions of understanding the quality of qualifications is the extent to which the obtained learning outcomes correspond to the description of the learning outcomes. In educational practice, this compliance is achieved by adjusting the appropriate teaching methods, materials, learning environment, as well as the method of checking whether a person has mastered certain effects.
It favors the accumulation and transfer of achievements. For this to happen, learning outcomes must be properly formulated and presented. Only then do the learning outcomes fulfill their purpose for: learners and people who want to confirm their knowledge and skills; teachers; as well as people responsible for conducting a fair validation process.
How should the learning outcomes be formulated? The aim is to ensure the same understanding of the recorded effects by all parties involved, therefore the effects should be described in such a way that they are:
EQUIVALENT – without any doubts, giving no space for different interpretations, allowing for planning and carrying out validation, the results of which will be comparable – everyone (e.g. a student, teacher, examiner) should understand them in the same way.
UNDERSTANDING – available to every (typical, average) learner – should be understood by both beginners and advanced, e.g. teacher or examiner.
REAL – possible to be achieved by every (typical, average) learner; should not be formulated with the best student in mind.
MEASURABLE – verifiable during validation, verifiable.
CONSISTENT – should be consistent within a unit / set, i.e. related, complementary and presented in an ordered manner (e.g. in the order from general to specific or according to a specific logical sequence).
* The requirements presented above should be understood as directional guidelines. It is impossible to ensure full unambiguity in natural language, and some point out that striving for measurability at all costs makes the requirements shallower and limits the presence of some key competences (e.g. social) in education.
When describing individual learning outcomes, the use of operational verbs is recommended (e.g. differentiates, justifies, assembles, summarizes, lists). You should avoid ambiguous terms, because they will not be measurable (e.g. understand, knows, knows, can, works properly, knows how to perform correctly). To better illustrate the importance of this aspect, it is worth referring to the commentary on the education of mathematical skills:
Why does the essay say what the student can do and not emphasize that he or she must also understand the required concepts?
The word “understand” is too imprecise, as it is possible to put various interpretations under it. For example, it is postulated that a student after grade III should understand the concept of a number (default: natural, because he does not know others). It is also postulated that the high school graduate should understand the concept of a natural number. It is obvious that there are two completely different, incomparable levels of understanding. Moreover, any attempts to determine whether a student understands a given concept, unless it is carried out by a professionally trained psychologist, may only check verbal knowledge, and require the student to have theoretical formulations, definitions, and learned formulas. For this reason, whether a student has a proper understanding of a given concept (at his / her age level) is to be concluded indirectly from whether he / she correctly and meaningfully performs the activities specified in the core curriculum. ” (commentary of Prof. Z. Marciniak to the core curriculum of 2009, pp. 55-56)
Another issue related to learning outcomes, which is of great importance for ensuring the consistency of effects, and later the possibility of accumulating and transferring achievements, is the appropriate construction of qualifications, and more specifically the creation of units (sets, groups) of learning outcomes.
A unit (set) of learning outcomes is a set of recorded learning outcomes that are coherently related, complement each other and form a logical whole. According to the ECVET principles, units can be grouped in various ways, e.g. from the perspective of:
- process and subsequent professional tasks (e.g. assembly, commissioning and maintenance of electrical installations),
- thematic area (e.g. occupational health and safety),
- product or technique (e.g. hybrid manicure).
How many learning outcomes should there be in each unit? There is no definite answer to this. It depends on the specificity of the qualifications and the level of complexity of the given unit.
Grouping of learning outcomes is used in many areas of education, including VET qualifications, learning mobility projects and market qualifications included in the Integrated Qualifications System. However, the method of grouping the effects in general education and academic education is different, where the thematic and subject criterion prevails as the principle of grouping.
For example, the qualification “Performing cosmetic treatments” (distinguished in the profession of a technician of cosmetic services) includes, inter alia, such sets of learning outcomes as:
- Occupational Health and Safety
- Cosmetics basics
- Use of knowledge in the field of anatomy and dermatology in cosmetic diagnostics
- The use of physical therapy and cosmetic preparation in cosmetic procedures
An example of a market qualification included in the IQS is “Programming and operating the 3D printing process”, and it consists of two sets:
- Preparation of the 3D printing process based on documentation
- Implementation of the 3D printing process
Examples of units of learning outcomes used in learning mobility projects can be found in the publication: Learning outcomes and their verification in learning mobility projects. Catalog of examples (Foundation for the Development of the Education System, 2018).