New Research to Put University Learning Outcomes in the Spotlight

June 26, 2003

The university’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI) will work with other academic partners during the four-year research programme, which will begin in 2004. The research will investigate the effects of the learning context on the outcomes of university learning. In so doing, it will explore the conceptions of learning that underlie the formulation of subject benchmark statements, programme specifications and student assessment criteria.
Project director Prof John Brennan, of CHERI, said: “Higher education has been in almost constant expansion in Britain since the 1960s and recently published documents in both Britain and the European Union point to further expansion.
“The diversity of higher education in Britain, both in terms of its student population and the forms of education it provides, poses important questions for our understanding of the nature and comparability of learning outcomes across an expanded higher education system. These questions lie at the heart of this research project and will help shape UK educational strategy for the next decade or more.”
Evidence from students and graduates in three contrasting subject areas – biology, business studies and sociology – will be collected. Conceptions of learning outcomes as cognitive development, as academic and professional development and as personal identity will also be examined. The research team will also explore how these conceptions differ according to the social context of study and the principles of curriculum organisation and assessment.
The relationships between learning, curriculum organisation and the social context of study will then be explored through a survey of students in a wider range of subjects.
The project will be carried out in partnership with the Academy for Learning and Teaching; the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education; and the Council for Industry and Higher Education.
Prof Brennan added: “This project will ask some fundamental questions about what is really learned in higher education. We shall be looking at the learning experiences and outcomes of students in a range of higher education settings. We especially want to see how far learning outcomes are affected by differences in the ways that courses are organised and in the make-up of their student bodies. The findings may well challenge conventional thinking about the benefits that students obtain from different types of higher education.”
The project forms part of ESRC’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP). Projects forming Phase 3 of the programme have recently been approved and will start this autumn and in early 2004.
The research team is led by:
 Prof John Brennan, project director (of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University);
 Prof Mike Osborne (Centre for Research into Lifelong Learning at Stirling University);
 Prof David Jary (Learning and Teaching Support Network Centre for Anthropology, Sociology and Politics at the University of Birmingham);
 Prof John Richardson (the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University).
The Centre for Higher Education Research and Information aims to inform higher education policy by providing research, intelligence and analysis to policy-makers at institutional, national and international levels. More information about its work can be found at
The ESRC is the UK’s largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. For more information visit
The ESRC’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme involves more than 30 research teams from across the UK. It began in 2000 and will continue to 2008/9. For more information, contact Programme Director Prof Andrew Pollard at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge on 01223 369931.

Neil Coaten
Open University Media Relations
01908 652580