Learning Outcomes in Doctoral Education – Achieved and Assessed?

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The development of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) is firmly rooted in the idea of higher education (HE) as the cornerstone of a knowledge-based society. Throughout Europe, HE bodies are addressing issues of quality, mobility, employability and lifelong learning. HE agencies and institutions alike are working hard to harmonise European degrees and apply quality assurance standards (ESG, 2005). Central to these efforts is the development of outcome-based curricula and assessment. Doctoral programmes are viewed as the “third cycle”, to be aligned with the framework for qualifications (QF-EHEA, 2005) and equipped with degree descriptors expressed as learning outcomes. Doctoral education is thus viewed from a curricular perspective (Gilbert, 2009). This view is in many ways at odds with the traditional view, where the doctoral degree is earned mainly by doing research as presented in a thesis. These ongoing changes to doctoral education may be labelled either a crisis for research or a possibility to supply society with skilled people (Coate & Leonard, 2002). In Sweden, the alignment to the QF-EHEA took place in 2007. The Swedish HE Ordinance now states intended learning outcomes for all degrees. For the doctoral degree, ten multifaceted learning outcomes now exist under three headings: knowledge and understanding, skills and competence, and judgement and approach. These outcomes outline a wide and detailed account of the requirements of the doctorate and describe qualifications not easily assessed through a thesis alone. This raises the question of whether the new outcomes are being integrated in the assessment of the degree and affecting doctoral student learning, or whether they are just an administrative layer on top of traditional practices for doctoral education. This study addresses the question of whether the new intended learning outcomes are being made part of the social practices of doctoral education or not. The study is framed by a socio-cultural perspective on learning and views doctoral programmes as communities of practice. Frameworks of qualifications as well as programme curricula and intended learning outcomes are viewed as different classifications systems (Bowker & Star, 1999) where classifications take on the properties of boundary objects. The study relies on two different sets of empirical data: A questionnaire to departmental heads of doctoral programmes at one Swedish university, tracking formal and informal assessment practices at the level of the doctorate. The answers will be collected in early spring 2011, so no results may be displayed yet. The other set of data contains supervisors’ judgement of doctoral students’ achievements in relation to the intended learning outcomes. We asked doctoral supervisors from a wide range of subjects to estimate how well the average doctoral student in their experience met with the new learning outcomes. The supervisors (n=72) were asked to colour-code the learning outcomes as: normally, sometimes, or rarely achieved at the time of dissertation. The learning outcomes where then organised according to colour, from most likely to least likely to be achieved. At the top were outcomes related to the particular theoretical knowledge and research methods of the thesis, and the capacity for scholarly analysis and synthesis. Almost all supervisors held that these outcomes normally were achieved. At the bottom were learning outcomes associated with the planning and undertaking of research, research ethics, and engagement and dialogue with society in general, i.e. qualifications that are not easily assessed through a thesis alone. Here only a third, or less, of the supervisors held the outcomes likely to be achieved. Also, many supervisors believed that these outcomes rarely were achieved. The results from the questionnaire, tracking the assessment practices, should clarify if new forms of assessments are being introduced to assess the new intended learning outcomes. Boud, D. & Lee, A. (Ed.) (2009). Changing practices of doctoral education. London: Routledge. Bowker, G.C., & Star, S.L. (1999). Sorting Things Out. Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press. Coate, K. Leonard, D. (2002). The structure of research training in England. Australian Educational Researcher,29(3): 19-42. ESG (2005). Standards and Gudielines for Quality Assurance in the Higher Education Area. Helsinki, Finland: ENQA, European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. Gilbert, R. (2009). The doctorate as curriculum. A perspective on goals and outcomes of doctoral education. In: Boud, D. & Lee, A. (Ed.) (2009). Changing practices of doctoral education. London: Routledge. 54-68. QF-EHEA, (2005). A Framework for Qualifications in the European Higher Education Area. Bologna Working Group for Qualification Frameworks. Copenhagen: The Ministry of Science.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2011
EventECER, European Conference on Educational Research, 2011 - Berlin, Germany
Duration: 2011 Sept 132011 Sept 16


ConferenceECER, European Conference on Educational Research, 2011

Bibliographical note

Department affilation moved from v1000887 (CED - Centre for Educational Development) to v1000942 (Division for Higher Education Development) on 2016-03-31 08:48:50.

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Educational Sciences

Free keywords

  • Bologna
  • Educational development
  • Doctoral Supervision
  • Doctoral Education
  • ILO


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