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This issue of CDTL Brief features articles on Professional Development and Curriculum Design and its significance in higher education.

July 2009, Vol. 12 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Specifying Learning Outcomes in Graduate Business Education— Insights on Theory and Practice
Dr Ann Bourke
Vice Principal for Teaching and Learning
College of Business and Law
University College Dublin


In 2005, University College Dublin (UCD)1 redesigned its programme offerings and moved to a modular and semesterised (rather than yearlong) system. The programme design changes and the process employed were demanding for all academic and non-academic staff, and were further complicated by the university’s restructuring—we now have five Colleges and 35 Schools. As the lead person for teaching and learning (T&L) within the College of Business and Law, I was the conduit for the university in promoting the shift from a content-driven/ teacher-led philosophy of teaching to one which is student-centred and outcomes-based. This article identifies and explains some of the intricacies associated with leading and informing faculty in specifying programme and/ or module learning outcomes and using them to inform their teaching and assessment strategies. The barriers encountered (mainly knowledgeand information-based) are identified along with strategies used to circumvent them, to coax faculty to engage in programme/module redesign and convince them that teaching university students can be fun, especially at graduate level!

Learning outcomes—What are they?

Learning outcomes and their usefulness in higher education have been commented on in the literature (Moon, 2002; Biggs, 2004; Hussey and Smith, 2002) and are normally specified in generic terms (e.g. development of analytical skills/communication competencies). They have certain advantages in that they clarify for the learner what is expected in terms of learning, and provide indications of what will be assessed. The expectation that faculty (especially module coordinators) specify what a student is expected to know, understand or be able to do at the end of a module/programme and how that learning can be demonstrated was well-received by some colleagues, but not all. Formerly, UCD programme/course details were made available in a booklet. With the new system, these details are now available online. A new module descriptor tool was introduced and completing this form (detailing the module overview, learning outcomes, workload and assessment) was considered an inconvenience by some faculty, a major challenge by others and an exciting development by a small number.

To support the shift to the outcomes-based approach, I facilitated several workshops for staff from the Business School during which the essence and features of clearly articulated learning outcomes were considered, and their usefulness in guiding teaching and learning strategies explained. Specific activities/tasks were completed by participants during each workshop and the usefulness of the Dublin Descriptors highlighted, as explained below.

Dublin Descriptors and learning outcomes

The Bologna Framework (Dublin Descriptors) informs the levels of learning within the Irish higher education system. They are specified for the three cycles: (i) Undergraduate (levels 7 and 8), (ii) Masters (level 9) and (iii) Doctoral (level 10)2. For Cycle 2 (Masters—see Table 1), the descriptors emphasise the extent to which students must be able to demonstrate, apply and integrate their knowledge and understanding along with the communication and learning skills acquired by completing the programme. Using this generic framework, it is possible to write/formulate programme outcomes and then identify the module offerings that will facilitate the attainment of these outcomes, taking into account the subject knowledge and personal skills/competencies required.

Table 1: Dublin Descriptors (Cycle 2)

Headings Detailed Specifications
Have demonstrated knowledge and understanding That is founded upon and extends and/or enhances that typically associated with Bachelor’s level and provides a basis or opportunity for originality in developing or applying ideas often within the research context.
Can apply their knowledge and understanding And problem solving abilities in new or unfamiliar environments
Have the ability to integrate knowledge And handle complexity and formulate judgements with incomplete or limited information, but that include reflection on social and ethical responsibilities linked to the application of their knowledge and judgements.
Can communicate their conclusions And the knowledge and rationale underpinning these to specialist and non specialist audiences clearly and unambiguously.
Have the learning skills To allow them continue to study in a manner that may be largely self directed or autonomous

Asking workshop participants to suggest how the attainment of the learning outcomes reproduced in Table 2 might be assessed is always an interesting exercise and brings varied responses. With the assessment strategies identified, other issues emerged such as grading, compiling grade descriptors and so on, which have been the subject of more recent Business School T&L workshops.

Table 2: Learning outcomes—International Business Module (7.5 ECTS, Level 9)

On completing this module, students will be expected to be able to:
• Critically assess the theoretical underpinnings of international business   management;
• Account for the variety of variables which influence the international firm’s   success;
• Explain the strategic options available to firms that ‘go international’ and analyse   the internal/external forces effecting this decision; and
• Organise, manage, evaluate and report on a business seminar.

Overall, feedback from the workshops was positive but the question of how to communicate the message to the non-attendees/disengaged had to be addressed. The assistance of Subject Area Heads, who are responsible for module quality, was sought to outline and explain the changes in teaching and learning philosophy to subject area members. This helped to bridge the communication gap and was supported by the development and circulation of ‘how to’ guides. Over the course of the initial school workshops and based on conversations with faculty, it emerged that many individuals did not understand the connection between formulating module learning outcomes, module design and delivery (including learning tasks), and how the attainment of the learning outcomes was measured (using assessment tools). There is evidence to suggest that this misunderstanding has been reduced, based on data from the recent module descriptor form and discussions at the Programme Board meetings and School Executive. Another manifestation of the change is the shift away from formal examinations as the sole assessment tool and the employment of other tools such as projects, essays, presentations, case study analysis and so on.

Information gaps—Module quality

As Vice Principal for T&L, I am responsible for overseeing module quality at the school level and identifying inconsistencies or information gaps. During our first three years of modularisation, many blank descriptor forms (mainly for graduate taught modules) existed. Some possible explanations for the gaps include:


timing—the undergraduate programmes were modularised first (in 2004), followed by the graduate programmes (in 2006);


the large number of graduate programme offerings (compared with undergraduate) and consequently a larger number of module details to be revised;


the variety of levels of learning within the graduate programme portfolio—specialist pre-experience masters, post-experience masters and executive education programmes; and


the university’s poorly developed technological infrastructure (this was since upgraded). The number of blank descriptor forms has been reduced (as at December 2008). Two factors contributed to this: (a) better familiarity with the system and (b) programme marketing requirements.

Concluding comments—Any lessons for educators?

In writing this article, I reflected on the progress made with respect to adopting an outcomesbased philosophy and how this can influence the reshaping of UCD Business School’s programme offerings. A key lesson emerging from this exercise is the need to plan activities and communication strategies to bring all faculty members (and administrators) along. Since 2005, heads of T&L have been appointed in each school, along with a T&L committee. The latter provides a forum for initiatives such as the School Teaching Awards, module quality reviews and development of policies specific to the Business School’s needs. Another noteworthy development is that two Business School programme reviews have now been completed, resulting in improved programme design and delivery. Given the university’s ‘big bang’ approach to modularisation, there was resistance and disinterest by certain individuals and nothing would make them interested! The insights I have gained on faculty learning (or non-learning) are particularly valuable and cancel out the stressful moments during workshops, seminars and school meetings. This article focuses mainly on the practice (rather than theory) of specifying learning outcomes and I trust that the reader is convinced that while worthwhile, there are many intricacies involved in the process!



There are seven universities in Ireland and UCD is the largest with a student population of 22,000.

2. The Irish National Qualifications Framework (NQF) uses levels 1–10 (


Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Hussey, T. & Smith, P. (2002). The trouble with learning outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 3(3), 220–233.

Moon, J. (2002). The Programme and Module Programme Development Handbook: A Practical Guide to Linking Levels, Outcomes and Assessment Criteria. London: Kogan Page.

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Inside this issue
International Approaches to Aligning Learning-centred Curricula and Staff Development: Developing Scholarly Approaches to Curriculum and Pedagogical Practice in Higher Education
Specifying Learning Outcomes in Graduate Business Education— Insights on Theory and Practice
Traversing Borders, Integrating Knowledge(s)
Processes in Module Planning