A "craze" to spell out detailed "learning outcomes" for courses, driven by the Quality Assurance Agency, is a futile bureaucratic burden, according to a new research paper.
The concept of setting "learning outcomes" was established by the QAA after the 1997 Dearing report said that students should have much more detailed information about their studies. But in a paper published this month, Trevor Hussey, a senior lecturer at Bucks New University, argues that the concept has been widely misused.
"The craze for learning outcomes has led to their being applied to individual teaching sessions such as lectures, seminars or classes, to whole modules and even to entire degree courses," he told Times Higher Education.
"The term 'learning outcome' can't mean the same in each case. Some uses are legitimate, and some just lead to confusion."
In a 2007 report on the use of learning outcomes in 70 institutions, the QAA criticised a lack of "explicit linkage" between learning outcomes and assessment.
But in the February issue of Teaching in Higher Education, Professor Hussey argues in his paper that the term should only "indicate in the most general manner" what teachers need to assess, and should not be used as performance indicators.
He argues that the concept is most useful when tutors employ it to specify, in broad terms, what they want their students to acquire from a given teaching class, lecture or seminar.
"Such learning outcomes will consist of summary statements specifying fairly small pieces of learning."
Examples include a maths tutor intending to improve students' skill in interpreting graphs.
Universities often demand that academics specify learning outcomes when they design a module of a degree programme, but these can usefully be "little more than an annotated list of contents", Professor Hussey said. The kind of learning achieved during a module is complex and limits of what has to be learnt will always be arbitrary.
"Attempts to make them precise statements for exactly specifying assessment tasks or for audit by those not familiar with the subject area are futile," he said.
Learning outcomes cannot be applied to whole degree programmes, he added. "The farther away from students and the teacher together in a classroom, the more remote, generalised and irrelevant statements of learning outcomes become."
This is not the first time Mr Hussey has criticised the concept of learning outcomes. He wrote his first critical paper in 2002. "The educational world seemed to be besotted with learning outcomes," he said. "All teachers had to prepare them before venturing before students and before a QAA visit every module or course had to be swaddled in documents listing them.
"It seemed that this was a very questionable fad, favoured more by managers than by teachers and academics."