18 Oct 2017

Creating learning outcomes for international traineeships

Are you sure your students improve their generic skills during their traineeships abroad? We all might hope for that, but can we be sure that this is really happening? If we don’t have mechanisms in place that will verify their skills gain, how do we actually know? Our students might tell us that it was a fantastic time and they learned a lot, but can they articulate which skills they actually improved and what evidence there is for that? This blog explores how to best design learning outcomes for students abroad – a topic that will be further covered at the EAIE Autumn Academy 2017 in Warsaw next month.

Learning outcomes are key to supporting and verifying skills gain

Sounds simple, but in fact is not. Academic staff are probably quite familiar now with the concept of outcome and competence orientation as curriculum design and associated accreditation procedures require the use of learning outcomes. Tips on how to formulate these are easily available. Erasmus+ learning agreements also ask for generic skills learning outcomes and the Traineeship Certificate supposedly documents the achievements.  So where’s the problem? Often these learning outcomes are prefabricated, don’t consider the context in which the student operates and their achievement is not always checked. If we want to be sure that our students really improve their generic skills, we should consider three basic principles for designing learning outcomes:

  • Be realistic
  • Be specific
  • Be accountable

Be realistic

How long is the traineeship abroad? It’s quite unrealistic to believe that students will become fully flexible and adapt to all kinds of different cultures within eight or 12 weeks. However, they might become more aware for the necessity to adapt and for differences in the way people hold meetings, make decisions or value punctuality, for example. As a consequence, we should only select those outcomes that are likely to be achieved within the scope of such traineeships. This also means that it is essential to consider the domain in which students will work. It makes a difference if a student does his or her traineeship in a hospital, a school or in the context of an IT project. They all will be able to improve their generic skills, but in the hospital and the school these might even be part of the traineeship set-up, whereas in the case of the IT project, technical skills might be more in focus.

Be specific

Learning outcomes need to specify clearly what the intended outcome is. Everybody can probably subscribe to this, but practice shows that this is often not the case. Using verbs like know or understand is not clear enough. So, for example, instead of using ‘students are able to understand cultural differences at the workplace‘ you could use ‘students are able to describe the differences observed in the work with patients at their traineeship place to those discussed and experienced at home’. Another way to make learning outcomes more specific is to use a concrete verb in combination with a certain method, such as ‘students are able to describe the decision-making process and the meeting culture at the workplace using the DIE method’. DIE stands for Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, and is a method to increase awareness for avoiding quick and simple judgements. Making learning outcomes realistic and specific is the prerequisite for the third and probably the most relevant, but unfortunately also often overlooked aspect of learning outcomes, the verification of the achievement of the intended learning outcome.

Be accountable

Designing learning outcomes without already considering how to measure their achievement is simply a waste of time. We may wish that our students will improve this and that and it may actually happen – great, if it does – but effectively designed learning outcomes will not leave this to chance, but rather will have mechanisms in place that can verify the achievement of what was intended. If you want your students to explain cultural differences to show their awareness and understanding of these, but then use a multiple choice test after their return from the placement, this will definitely not verify understanding but at most some knowledge on cultural differences. ‘Understanding’ could be checked, for example, by a reflective diary using guiding questions, a feedback interview or a returnee seminar.
The two previously identified principles are also valid for this third one. It’s necessary to balance choice of measures with resources. If you cannot carry out a returnee seminar where you can discuss the observations and conclusions on cultural differences with students returning from their placements, you might then change the learning outcomes to ‘describing’ or ‘identifying’ differences and use a report as the assessment method. This does not mean that students may not actually be able to explain them or even go beyond that. It only means that you may not be able to verify this for all students, so you need to adapt the learning outcomes accordingly.
What universities can do to support the skills gain of students during traineeships abroad and how international office staff and academics can use learning outcomes for securing this skills gain will be the focus of the course ‘Preparing your students for work placements abroad: skills to succeed‘ at the EAIE Academy in Warsaw on 16-17 November 2017. Sign up by 24 October. We hope to see you there!
Gabriele Abermann is National Expert for the European Higher Education Area. Maria Tabuenca is Vice Dean for Mobility, University of Alicante.