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Margin Notes

A framework for measuring student learning

Canada actually has one for degree programs, endorsed by provincial ministers of education. Who knew?


What are students learning – or, at least, what should they learn – when they take a degree program? That, in essence, is what the Lumina Foundation in the U.S. would like answered through their proposed “Degree Qualifications Profile,” also called simply a “Degree Profile,” described by the foundation as “a framework for defining and ultimately measuring the general knowledge and skills that individual students need to acquire in order to earn degrees at various levels.” (The executive summary can be found here, and the full report here.)

According to the foundation, the Degree Profile is in part a way to hold universities to account for student learning outcomes by making these learning expectations explicit rather than implicit. “In so doing,” says the report, “use of the Degree Profile may provide an opportunity to strengthen higher education and the focus on student learning.”

Adding a sense of urgency to the discussion, Lumina’s proposal arrives on the heels of a provocative new book, Academically Adrift, which claims that a significant proportion of students in the U.S. in fact learn precious little during their four years at university.

Both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have good coverage of the Lumina proposals, here, and here.

The degree profile proposed by Lumina is similar in concept to the degree qualifications frameworks being championed by the European Higher Education Area and which form a  part of the Bologna Process transforming higher education in Europe. Like the Lumina proposal, the qualifications frameworks in Europe seek to itemize and quantify the learning outcomes expected from a degree program.

The EHEA also believes that degree qualifications frameworks “should help the Bologna Process establish real transparency between existing European systems of higher education through the development of a shared basis for understanding these systems and the qualifications they contain. This should improve the recognition of foreign qualifications, enhance the mobility of citizens and make credential evaluation more accurate. … Last, but not least, it provides a context for effective quality assurance.”

Where does Canada stand in all this? Believe it or not, we actually have a degree qualifications framework, endorsed by the provincial ministers of education in a statement on quality assurance adopted in 2007. It’s an interesting document and well worth a look.

The framework was adopted by the Council of Ministers of Education Canada as a way of assessing both new degree-granting institutions and new degree programs, to ensure that they meet “appropriate standards.” As reported in University Affairs, the new guidelines were seen as “a first step to a Canada-wide system to ensure the quality of degrees and degree providers.” The guidelines, however, were not binding and have been largely ignored.

I am not in a position to say authoritatively whether or not degree qualifications frameworks are a worthy endeavour, although it seems sensible to me that students, faculty and university administrators have some shared sense of what sorts of competencies students should acquire over the course of their four-year degrees.

In the light of events in the U.S. and Europe, perhaps now is a good time to dust off Canada’s degree qualifications framework and give it a second look, particularly in the context of the increasing globalization of higher ed.

What’s your view? Would degree qualifications frameworks improve the accountability, transparency and quality of higher education in Canada?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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