2010 Policy Paper “Student Centered Learning”

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In the traditional higher education system, study programmes, courses or modules, teaching and learning methods as well as student assessment have been predominantly designed, organised and carried out from a teacher perspective and around the question, which issues will be taught to students. Hence it has not always been clear and explicit which are the goals of a learning process from the perspective of a student. ESIB calls for a shift towards a student-centred approach of learning, where the goals of a learning process from the student’s perspective are in the focus. With this paper ESIB defines its vision of a student-centred education system.


Learning is the process during which a learner acquires knowledge and skills and develops attitudes, values and further competences. Learning takes place in numerous contexts, for instance in a formal setting involving teacher(s) and learner(s), but also in many everyday life situations. Learning may take place both intentionally and unintentionally.
Learning can be generally classified by different modes:

  • Formal learning occurs in an organised and structured environment (in a school/training centre or on the job) and is explicitly designated as learning (in terms of objectives, time or resources). Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. It typically leads to certification.
  • Informal learning results from daily activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not organised or structured in terms of objectives, time or learning support. Informal learning is in most cases unintentional from the learner’s perspective. It typically does not lead (directly) to certification.
  • Non-formal learning is embedded in planned activities not explicitly designated as learning (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support), but which contain an important learning element. Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. It normally does not lead (directly) to certification.

In the context of the higher education system, formal learning, which has taken place outside the higher education system, is also often regarded as non-formal learning. Learning outcomes are statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate after completion of a process of learning.

Learning Outcomes can be expressed in terms of knowledge, skills and further competences, such as the ability of self-directed learning or the ability to make societal and ethical judgements based on one’s values and attitudes.

Learning Outcomes: Fundament of the paradigm shift

The concept of Learning Outcomes forms the core conceptual basis of a student-centered education system. Basing the education system on Learning Outcomes should facilitate a paradigm shift from teaching to learning. ESIB stresses that to reach a real paradigm shift, a mere technical description in terms of Learning Outcomes is insufficient. Rather, a change that also encompasses teaching and learning culture within higher education institutions is necessary.
ESIB stresses that Learning Outcomes are independent of the context and the mode in which learning takes place. The same or very similar Learning Outcomes can be achieved in entirely different contexts or settings. ESIB therefore stresses that different ways of learning should be valued in the education system and learners shall not be disadvantaged on the basis on where their learning has taken place.

The Learning Outcomes of a study programme must form the basis for its design, planning and operation. Academics possess substantial experience in a subject area. Students have interests in a potential new study programme and the Learning Outcomes they are supposed to achieve by it.
Students demand a meaningful study programme, both for their personal development as well as their chances on the labour market. As both students and academics have relevant experiences and important perspectives, ESIB stresses that Learning Outcomes should be discussed and formulated by
them in a co-operative process. In addition to that, ESIB regards it as advisable to consult experts from the social partners when formulating Learning Outcomes, as they know about possible work settings of future graduates.

The Learning Outcomes of smaller entities, such as modules and courses, shall be subsequently derived from the Learning Outcomes of the entire programme. ESIB stresses that the learning and teaching methods as well as assessment methods have to be designed in the light of the defined Learning Outcomes and must be appropriate to achieve them. For instance, a combination of a lecture and a written exam will hardly support learners in improving their oral presentation skills. Learning and teaching methods have to consider that different learners have different ways to learn and some students need extra attention due to one’s disability. They must allow learners from all different backgrounds to be successful in a study programme. Internal and external measures of quality assurance have to consider whether the chosen teaching, learning and assessment methods as well as the available resources and infrastructure are appropriate to achieve the described Learning Outcomes of a study programme.

The Learning Outcomes of study programmes as well as of courses and modules have to be transparent and easy accessible for students, employers and other interested parties. They have to be formulated in a clear and meaningful way. Academics and students who formulate Learning Outcomes should have access to training opportunities and counselling on that matter, provided for instance by experienced colleagues from other institutions or countries.

A credit system for Lifelong Learning

ESIB reaffirms its support of a credit transfer and accumulation system based on Learning Outcomes and student workload as core principles. The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) should become the building block of all study programmes. ESIB notes that the proper implementation of ECTS throughout Europe requires further commitment and support by governments and higher education institutions.
ESIB is convinced that the principles of ECTS are applicable not only to higher education, but to all ways of education. ESIB does not see a need to develop further credit systems from scratch, but rather calls for a further development of ECTS into and use of ECTS as a credit system for Lifelong Learning. It would be contradictory to stress a closer link and smooth transition between the pillars of the education system on the one hand, and to have incompatible credit systems in place on the other hand.

ESIB stresses that decisions on the recognition of study periods shall be fundamentally based on the principles of workload and Learning Outcomes. Other indicators, such as the type of course or the status of the learner, shall not be relevant for recognition decisions.

Flexible curricula for individual choices

ESIB stresses that curricula of study programmes should be designed in a flexible way and allow individual students to make their individual choices. European countries redesign their curricula from very different starting points: while some countries were used to have very rigid and unflexible curricula, others traditionally had almost entirely unstructured study programmes. Both starting points should not be turned into the opposite extreme. To be meaningful for students, curricula must provide learners the opportunity to choose their own courses and modules for a significant part of a study programme, but at the same time not be organised in an entire “supermarket approach”. ESIB stresses that a high level of flexibility requires proper guidance and counselling opportunities for students. This includes counselling before choosing a programme and entering higher education. Students should not be left alone when making their
individual choices, but should receive advice from teaching stuff in designing their personal curricula.

This requires appropriate structures at faculty or department level as well as sufficient availability of teaching staff and professional counselling staff, such as career guidance experts, for counselling activities. ESIB stresses that ECTS should be used as a tool to properly organise a flexible curriculum. A proper use of the credit accumulation approach should allow non-full-time students to study without obstacles. With a system of credit accumulation it is not necessary to structure a study programme strictly by study years or semesters with strict progression rules. Instead credit accumulation should provide more flexibility for individual students.

Qualifications Frameworks – the wider context

ESIB reaffirms its support of the development of Qualifications Frameworks in order to apply the Learning Outcome approach to the education system as a whole. National and European Qualifications Frameworks should allow for the articulation of different qualifications towards a common reference framework on the basis of their Learning Outcomes and credit volume. Internal and external quality assurance measures have to verify the described Learning Outcomes of a study programme against those laid down in national, sectoral and/or European Qualifications Frameworks.

National Qualifications Frameworks should cover the whole education system of a country and not merely higher education or another single sector. They must systematically relate all qualifications of an education system to each other. By their overarching nature, such frameworks should contribute to closer cooperation between sectors and to extended possibilities of smooth access to different educational programmes for learners and transition between sectors.
ESIB stresses that National Qualifications Frameworks must provide new, non-traditional entry routes into the higher education system. They should empower those learners to enter the higher education system, which have been traditionally excluded from it. The entry requirements for any education programme should be defined in a basic way through a reference to a level within a Qualifications Framework and entry to that programme must be open to all who hold a qualification aligned to the respective level, no matter in which country and/or in which sector it has been achieved.

Programmes may in addition require the entrance qualification to be from a specific subject area and/or professional sector. Taking into account the increasing variety of programmes and a shift towards inter-disciplinarity, those requirements should not be designed unnecessarily tight. They should not act as an artificial barrier or as a restraint on the right of entry to a profession.

Giving value to non-formal and informal learning

Apart from formally certified qualifications learners must have the right to have their non-formal and informal learning recognised. The recognition of prior learning is regarded by ESIB as an important pillar of a student-centred education system. The provision of recognition of prior learning is the consequent application of the principle that all learning must be equally valued, no matter how and where it has taken place.

ESIB stresses that recognition of prior learning should be available both for the purpose of entry to a certain education programme as well as for the purpose of replacement of certain parts, such as courses or modules, of an education programme (comparable to academic recognition of study periods abroad). Procedures for the recognition of prior learning must be unbureaucratic and easily accessible to all applicants. They shall be based on the principles of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, e.g. recognition shall be granted if no substantial difference can be proven.

Recognition of prior learning is a key supporting instrument of Qualifications Frameworks. Learners have to have the possibility to get their non-formal and informal learning recognised if they do not hold a formally certified qualification providing access to a certain education programme. The Learning Outcomes describing the respective entrance level in a Qualifications Framework should be the reference for recognition of prior learning in that case.

Promoting the paradigm shift!

ESIB stresses that the approaches and instruments mentioned form the conceptual and operational basis of a paradigm shift from teaching to learning and a student centred education system. ESIB also stresses that the paradigm shift cannot be achieved only by structural measures, but requires constant promotion within and acceptance by the whole academic community to become fully successful. Higher education institutions, student organisations and quality assurance bodies have a responsibility to promote a cultural change in the higher education community by providing information material, training opportunities and by actively participating in reform discussions. To reach a student centred education system, all the concepts, measures and instruments mentioned
beforehand have to be implemented and fully supported by governments, academics and students.
Adopted at 51st BM in Paris, France, December 2006


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