A long way to go … A study on the implementation of the learning-outcomes based approach in the EU

Tim Birtwistle, Courtney Brown, Robert Wagenaar


Higher Education institutions have, in the framework of the Bologna Process, been called to re-define their degree programmes on the basis of the learning outcomes approach. This implies a change of paradigm moving from teacher-centred to student-centred education. The Tuning project was set-up in 2000 to develop — through a bottom-up approach — a methodology to achieve this shift. This methodology proved not only to be relevant for Europe, but also for other world regions, including the USA, where Tuning projects were launched from 2009. In 2010 both in the EU and the USA the need was felt to find out whether the intended modernization of learning was actually taking place and how this process was perceived by its main stakeholders. For this purpose a study was initiated, covering the period 2011 to the beginning of 2016, based on the two-pillar approach of quantitative and qualitative instruments. For the study a robust evaluation instrument was developed, consisting of surveys and in-depth interviews implemented by a research team at a selected group of Higher Education institutions, involving management, teaching staff, student counsellors and students. In this paper the outcomes of the EU part of the study are presented, cross referencing to some of the USA study results. The main outcome of the study is that in general limited progress has been made regarding the intended paradigm shift and that key expectations of the reform Process have not been met. This is both the case for Europe and the USA. Although, good practices have been identified, the actual implementation of the student-centred approach is not proceeding beyond a discourse on the paradigm shift and there is no certainty it will be achieved. For Europe there is also a worrying disconnect between the various tiers of the HE sector, ranging from Ministers to students, regarding the actual penetration of the student-centred approach and the education experience of the students. There has been a failure to engage with and convince academic staff about the necessity and advantages of this paradigm shift. Teaching staff are struggling to adjust to the new concepts and paradigm shift and are challenged by no longer being the “knowledge owners” but rather learning facilitators. It does not help that the vast majority of staff members have not undertaken professional development for HE teaching. Where staff development has taken place, it is too focused on process, rather than the concepts and benefits of a learning outcomes approach. The outcomes of the study should therefore be perceived as a wake-up call because without additional and continued support in particular for the teaching staff the reform process could fail.


Bologna Process; student-centred learning; learning outcomes; surveys; site-visits

Full Text:



Adelman, Cliff. The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence. Washington, 2009.

Arreola, Raoul A. Writing Learning Objectives. A Teaching Resource Document from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Planning and Academic Support, The University of Tennessee, Memphis, s.a.: https://www.uwo.ca/tsc/graduate_student_programs/pdf/LearningObjectivesArreola.pdf.

Bologna Process website: http://www.ehea.info/article-details.aspx?ArticleId=87

CEDEFOP. Terminology of European education and training policy. A selection of 130 key terms. Second edition, Luxembourg, 2014.

Education International and European Student Union, Time for a new paradigm in education: student-centred-learning. Learning SCL toolkit, s.a. (2010): http://www.esu-online.org/pageassets/projects/projectarchive/100814-SCL.pdf.

European Student Union. Bologna with Student Eyes 2015. Time to meet the expectations from 1999, Brussels, 2015: http://www.esu-online.org/asset/News/6068/BWSE-2015-online.pdf.

European University Association, TRENDS III: Progress towards the European Higher Education Area. By Sybille Reichert and Christian Tauch, 2003: http://www.ehea.info/Uploads/EUA%20TRENDS/TRENDS_III-July2003.pdf.

_____. TRENDS IV: European Universities Implementing Bologna. By Sybille Reichert and Christian Tauch, 2005: http://www.eua.be/eua/jsp/en/upload/TRENDSIV_final.1114509452430.pdf.

_____. TRENDS V: Universities shaping the European Higher Education Area. By David Crosier, Lewis Purser & Hanne Smidt, 2007: http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/documents/EUA_TRENDS_Reports/Final_TRENDS_Report_V_May.pdf.

_____. TRENDS VI (2010): A decade of change in European Higher Education. By Andrée Sursock & Hanne Smidt, 2010: http://www.eua.be/Libraries/publications-homepage-list/TRENDS2010.

_____. TRENDS VII (2015): Learning and Teaching in European Universities. By Andrée Sursock, 2015: http://www.eua.be/Libraries/publications-homepage-list/EUA_TRENDS_2015_web.

European Commission. The European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF). Luxembourg, 2008: http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/news/EQF_EN.pdf.

European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice. The European Higher Education Area in 2015: Bologna Process Implementation Report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2015.

Froyd, Jeffrey and Nancy Simpson. Student-Centered Learning Addressing Faculty Questions about Student- centered Learning. Texas A&M University, 2010: http://ccliconference.org/files/2010/03/Froyd_Stu-CenteredLearning.pdf.

Gonzalez, Julia and Robert Wagenaar, eds. Tuning Educational Structures in Europe, Final Report. Bilbao and Groningen, 2003.

Tuning Educational Structures in Europe, Universities’ contribution to the Bologna Process, Final Report Phase 2. Bilbao and Groningen, 2005.

High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education. Report to the Commission on Improving the quality of teaching and learning in Europe’s higher education institutions. June 2013. Luxembourg publications office or http://ec.europa.eu/education/library/reports/modernisation_en.pdf.

Lokhoff, Jenneke, Bas Wegewijs, Katja Durkin, Robert Wagenaar, Julia González, Ann Katherine Isaacs, Luigi F. Donà dalle Rose and Mary Gobbi, eds. A Guide to Formulating Degree Programme Profiles. Including Programme Competences and Programme Learning Outcomes. Bilbao, Groningen, The Hague, 2010.

Lumina Foundation website: www.luminafoundation.org.

McKiernan and Birtwistle.”Making the Implicit Explicit: Demonstrating the Value Added of Higher Education by a Qualifications Framework.” In: The Journal of College and University Law. Notre Dame, 2010: http://www3.nd.edu/~jcul/files/Birtwistle_McKiernan.pdf.

MHEC website: http://www.mhec.org/programs/tuning (accessed 18 May 2016). Millett, Catherine M., David G. Payne, Carol A. Dwyer, Leslie M. Stickler, Jon J.

Alexiou, A Culture of Evidence: An Evidence-Centered Approach to Accountability for Student Learning Outcomes. ETS, Princeton, 2008: https://www.ets.org/Media/Education_Topics/pdf/COEIII_report.pdf.

PASCL (Peer Assessment of Student Centred Learning) Website: http://pascl.eu/publications/overview-on-student-centred-learning-in-higher-education-in-europe/ (accessed 18 May 2016).

“Realising the European Higher Education Area.” Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education in Berlin on 19 September 2003: http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/documents/mdc/berlin_communique1.pdf.

Rogers, C., As a teacher, can I be myself? In: Freedom to learn for the 80s. Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1983.

Serbati, Anna. “Implementation of Competence-Based Learning Approach: stories of practices and the Tuning contribution to academic innovation.”Tuning Journal for Higher Education 3, no.1 (2015).

‘The Bologna Process 2020 — The European Higher Education Area in the new decade’. Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, 28-29 April 2009: http:// www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/conference/documents/leuven_louvain-la-neuve_communiqué_april_2009.pdf.

The Glossary for Education Reform website: http://edglossary.org/learning-objectives/.

Tuning Educational Structures in Europe website: http://www.unideusto.org/tuningeu/.

Tuning Europe website, EU/US research project: http://www.unideusto.org/tuningeu/component/content/article/385-euus-research-project.html.

Tuning International Academy website: http://www.tuningacademy.org/.

Tuning Russia website: http://www.tuningrussia.org/index.php?lang=ru.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18543/tjhe-3(2)-2016pp429-463


  • There are currently no refbacks.