Pecha Kucha Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

The Science Threshold Learning Outcomes: Design resource or quality assurance mechanism? (#321)

Elizabeth D Johnson 1 , Susan M Jones 2
  1. Deakin Learning Futures, Deakin University, Burwood, VIC, Australia
  2. University of Tasmania, Hobart, TAS, Australia


Biggs (2014) addressed two issues currently facing Australian universities: problems in implementing constructive alignment at institutional level, and quality assurance and quality enhancement. He concluded that the new standards-based quality assurance system administered by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) provides an outcomes-based framework that fits well with a constructivist approach to student learning: i.e., constructive alignment in university curricula will support quality enhancement. To what extent, though, has such an approach been adopted by discipline communities in Australia?  

The Science Threshold Learning Outcomes (TLOs) (Jones, Yates and Kelder, 2011) are the first nationally agreed set of learning outcomes for science graduates, and provide a reference point (sensu Higher Education Standards Framework, 2014: p12) for quality assurance of learning outcomes for bachelor degrees in science. To date there is only anecdotal evidence regarding the degree to which the Science TLOs have been actively applied in curriculum design and/or quality assurance.

This project aims to establish how and where the Science TLOS are currently implemented at the level of the University School/Department; to identify gaps and obstacles to implementation; and to recommend future strategic directions. Data was collected via an on-line survey of targeted key players in science education leadership in Australian universities, to be followed up by interviews with selected colleagues.

The survey results indicate general awareness of the Science TLOs amongst Faculty leaders in science education. Many universities have mapped their current science bachelor degrees against the Science TLOs, with some subsequent ‘retro-fitting’ of curricula. In some cases, sub-disciplinary TLOs derived from the Science TLOs have been applied. However, the science sector has yet to move towards the adoption of a formal system of peer assessment of student learning outcomes for the purposes of quality assurance.

Conference Theme:  Assessing, evidencing and evaluating graduate capabilities

Recent changes to quality assurance mechanisms for Australian universities have forced academics to think constructively about adopting a standards-based approach to quality assurance of teaching and learning.  National projects have generated a range of approaches to benchmarking, moderation and review.  However, a change of government and lack of clarity about regulation have created a climate of uncertainty regarding quality assurance of student learning.  

Science disciplines are an interesting case study in development and use of nationally agreed standards.  The Science Threshold Learning Outcomes (Jones, Yates and Kelder, 2011) have given rise to a group of aligned sub-discipline outcome statements generated through new discipline education networks and accompanied by descriptions of the application of TLOs in curriculum design.  Use of the Science TLOs for quality assurance has not been previously evaluated. 

The first step for science academics in developing a standards-based approach to quality assurance and quality enhancement is to map current curricula against the Science TLOs as a national reference point.  The next step involves discussion and debate around effective assessment of the TLOS, followed by external peer assessment of student learning. This poster presents a snapshot of current practice and highlights key future directions for the science disciplinary sector.

  1. Biggs, J. (2014). Constructive alignment in university teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, 5-22. Retrieved January 15, 2015, from
  2. Jones, S., Yates, B., Kelder, J. (2011) Science Learning And Teaching Academic Standards Statement, Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Retrieved February 11 2015 from
  3. Higher Education Standards Framework: advice to Minister December 2014 - (2014). Retrieved January 26 2015 from