Improving Student Learning – For the 21st Century Learner

The 17th Improving Student Learning Symposium, Imperial College London, UK, 7 –9 September 2009.

Programme structures, learning outcomes, and student assessment – did the Bologna process make any difference?

Asa Lindberg-Sand, Thomas Olsson and Annika Olsson, Lund University

Research paper

Themes: assessment methods, course and programme design, faculty development methods and/or strategies

Tuesday 8 September 2009, 16.00 - 17.00 in room 122

The Bologna process has introduced significant structural changes of higher education at the national level in Europe. The overall intention is to make European higher education more competitive and to ease student and work-force mobility. The process builds on a shift to outcome-oriented curricular systems based on intended learning outcomes to make qualifications comparable. As student assessment is the way to prove that the qualifications are at hand, changes of assessment processes should be part of the curricular change. The special research question discussed in this paper focus on how assessment is influenced by the reforms implemented during the Bologna process: What effects on programme structure, syllabi and on student assessment can be seen at an institutional level in a Swedish national context? The research emanates from a project investigating the interplay between formal assessment systems and the development of students’ and teachers’ work in the actual assessment process (Lindberg-Sand & Olsson, 2008). Student assessment is seen as a social practice and the overall objective is to gain a better understanding of assessment processes in higher education. To understand assessment processes as social practices it is important to see that they are dependent not only on local educational practices and disciplinary cultures but also on national frameworks of higher education. Assessment practices are normally slowly changing processes deeply embedded in a discipline-oriented teaching culture (Lindberg-Sand, 2005). However, in Sweden, as in many European countries, the Bologna process has changed the preconditions for assessment thoroughly.

The conceptual framework for the research is a combination of different strands of social practice theory. Assessment processes are related to the concept of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). The formal aspects of assessments are viewed as classification systems (Bowker & Star, 1999) working as structuring artefacts and also as boundary objects in relation to different educational communities of practice.

We define an assessment system as all the assessments delivered in a course or in a programme together with the formal rules and regulations underpinning assessment. By the assessment process we mean all student and teacher activities that are emanating from or directed towards the assessment system. Finally, the teaching and learning process is the totality of educational interaction between students, teachers and all other involved participants. The research object of this study is the assessment process as a social practice in its context.

We are studying three different engineering programmes at the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University in Sweden before and after the national reform that was launched in 2007 to implement the Bologna Process.  The three programmes are different specialities all leading to the degree of Master of Science in Engineering (300 ECTS-credits). The research methodology includes document studies and qualitative interviews. We are analysing and mapping information from official documents linked to the first three years in each of the programmes, all syllabi, study-guides, schedules, and samples of assessments and assignments delivered before and after the reform. We are especially looking for the character of the changes in educational structures, syllabi and in assessment design. Changes in assessment processes are explored by analysing qualitative interviews with teachers and students together with data from course evaluations and facts about student pass rates.

Results: The changes introduced by the Bologna process are evident both at the national and at the institutional level. The descriptions of the qualifications aimed at are made more demanding. The assessment systems now include syllabi with intended learning outcomes and a new credit system. At the programme level both structural and curricular changes are noted. However, single assessments seem to be practically uninfluenced by the shift to outcome-oriented curricula. Our research show that in the modularised programmes we are studying the assessment processes can best be described as a series of boundary encounters, linked together only by the assessment system both before and after the reform. Hence, the character of assessment processes in higher education might not transform as rapidly as could be expected from the official pace of the Bologna process.


  • Bowker, G. C. & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out. Classifications and its Consequences, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Lindberg-Sand, Ĺ. & Olsson, T. (2008). Sustainable assessment? Critical features of the assessment process in a modularised engineering programme, International Journal of Educational Research, 47, 165-174
  • Lindberg-Sand, Ĺ. (2005). Examination as an enacted view of knowledge: Internal development versus external demands in Swedish higher education. Paper presented at AIR annual congress in San Diego, USA, 29 May-1 June.
  • Ramsden, P. (1991). A Performance Indicator of Teaching Quality in Higher Education: the Course Experience Questionnaire, Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 16, No. 2
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press.