Proposal information: Module specification documents (‘specifications’) represent an important part of the educational offering of universities throughout Europe, and indeed, internationally. Put simply, these documents, and their programme/course level counterparts, are intended to summarise the learning outcomes of every individual taught module provided by a given institution (except at PhD level). Learning outcomes are the specific intentions of a module or programme and describe what a learner should know, understand or be able to do on its completion: their implementation draws on a learning taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) and has been widely discussed at European level (for example, in relation to the Bologna Process, Adam, 2008). However, some authors have suggested that such an approach has a tendency to assume a propositional view of learning and knowledge (Maher, 2004, Entwistle, 2005).
Whilst they feature some variation in format, specifications usually include sections on module content, the academic level and number of credits associated with the module, the learning outcomes themselves, teaching methods and approaches, assessment details, and feedback arrangements. Typically, they serve two key purposes: first, for approval or amendment of a module, which often involves their processing and checking at relevant committees; second, they provide the aforementioned summary information about a module for students and teachers. It is expected that students use them to inform and guide their learning and assessment, thus supporting the constructive alignment process (Biggs and Tang, 2011; Sambell et al, 2013) whilst teachers should align design of their curricula, assessment and feedback to their content too. However, whilst they serve positive purposes, specifications are often not fully accepted or used by academic and other teaching staff, regarded as a ‘bureaucratic hurdle’ to be cleared, as opposed to a learning resource (Ferudi, 2012). Thus, they might be used in full at the policy level (for module approval and update), but after this, they are often not used to guide teaching and learning to the extent that is intended.
The purpose of this paper is to reconsider the role of the module specification document, offer some critical appraisal of it, and advocate that, with some changes, it could be made into a more effective learning and teaching resource. The research questions raised in this paper are:
1. Why do academic and teaching staff often fail to use module specification documents (‘specifications’) to inform their teaching and guide the student learning process? Why do teachers often show ambivalence towards specifications?
2. What do we know about student views and uses of specifications?
3. What changes and developments could be made to specification documents in order to make them more useful to teachers, students and to the learning and teaching process?
Drawing on a combination of the author’s empirical research, additional desk-based (secondary) research, and more than ten years experience of advising colleagues on writing and using specifications, it will be argued that these documents do have genuine value, and could be a far greater pedagogic aid to learners and teachers. However, in order to achieve greater acceptance and use, changes need to be made with respect to the design and content of specifications. The paper will put forward a ‘case for change’ which should be of value to academics, higher education teachers, educational developers, policy makers, and students.
Adam, S. (2008). Learning outcomes current developments in Europe: Updates on the issues and applications of learning outcomes associated with the Bologna Process. https://www.ulb.ac.be/unica/docs/ECVET_Edinburgh_Feb08_Adams.pdf Baughan, P. (2012). The professional development of higher education lecturers and teachers: what will they really learn and know? Paper presented at The European Conference of Educational Research (ECER), Cadiz, Spain, 18-21 September. Baughan (2017, forthcoming). Narrative inquiry as an approach for researching student experiences of learning. Sage Research Methods Cases, London: Sage. Bazeley, P. (2013). Qualitative Data Analysis: Practical Strategies, London, Sage. Biggs, J and Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for Quality Learning at University, McGraw-Hill and Open University Press, Maidenhead. Blackler, F. (1995). Knowledge, Knowledge Work and Organizations: An Overview and Interpretation, Organisational Studies, 6, 1021-1046. Bloom, B. (1956). A Taxonomy of Cognitive Objectives, New York, McKay. Brooks, S., Dobbins, K., Scott, J., Rawlinson, M. and Norman, R. (2014). Learning about learning outcomes: the student perspective. Teaching in Higher Education, 19, 6, 721-733. Cousin, G. (2009). Researching learning in higher education: An Introduction to contemporary methods and approaches. Oxon, UK, Routledge. Entwistle, N.(2005). Learning Outcomes and Ways of Thinking across Contrasting Disciplines and Settings in Higher Education, ETL Project (Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses). Eraut, M. (2004) Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 113–136. Eraut, M. (2007). Professional knowledge and learning at work. Knowledge, Work and Society, 45-62. Ferudi (2012). The unhappiness principle. Times Higher Education, 29th November. www.timeshighereducation.com/the-unhappiness-principle/421958.article Hussey, T. and Smith, P. (2008). Learning outcomes: a conceptual analysis. Teaching in Higher Education, 13, 1, 107-115. Maher, A. (2004) Learning Outcomes in Higher Education: Implications for Curriculum Design and Student Learning, Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education, 3, 2, 46-54. Sambell, K., McDowell, L. and Montgomery, C. (2013) Assessment for Learning in Higher Education. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
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