Evaluating learning outcomes: In search of lost knowledge

O'Brien, S. and Brancaleone, D. (2011) Evaluating learning outcomes: In search of lost knowledge. Irish Educational Studies, 30 (1). pp. 5-21. ISSN 03323315 (ISSN)


This paper examines the concept, pervasive policy and practice of learning outcomes, as increasingly adopted and officially supported in third-level educational institutions. It begins by outlining the context and development of learning outcomes from European and Irish educational policy perspectives. We go on to explore how learning outcomes present and legitimate new knowledge forms through a particular ideological construction. The main theoretical insights that appear to inform the epistemic and pedagogical rationale for learning outcomes are critiqued, revealing hidden assumptions behind their conception, organisation and delivery. Managerialism is shown to act as a significant technology of governance in the ensuing process of cultural change. An authoritative presentation of knowledge remains central to this reconstruction of educational culture, though this is challenged by experiences of third-level teaching and learning. Specifically, critical discussion draws attention to significant gaps in knowledge domain, learning and teaching quality. Engagement with teacher colleagues, and experiences of working with third-level learners, provide a concrete object of study in which to ground our analysis. It is hoped that the theoretical and empirical insights presented will help frame and contest, within a European-wide perspective, current ideological debates on learning outcomes in education. In particular, we wish to highlight what appears to be the central paradox of learning outcomes the pervasive presence of what we call 'lost knowledge', that is to say, significant epistemological and pedagogical insights that remain hidden and inarticulate in the learning outcomes paradigm. In finding a value and place for such 'lost knowledge', the validity of this paradigm is seriously questioned. © 2011 Educational Studies Association of Ireland.

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