The transformation of ECTS from a transfer system into a transfer and accumulation system is one of the main objectives of the Tuning project. To this end a number of important papers have been written:
Two of these papers were prepared as part of Tuning I (2000-2002) and one as part of Tuning II (2003-2004). They have been used as a basis for the new European Commission ECTS Users’ Guide, published in the summer of 2004.
In these papers the relationship between credit points, based on student workload and learning outcomes based on competences to be obtained by the student/learner, is explained.
In an accumulation and transfer system, credits and learning outcomes, expressed in terms of competences are inseparably linked. They are the two sides of the same coin. While credits express the volume of learning, learning outcomes express the content of that learning. Credits are only awarded when the learning outcomes are achieved by the learner. However, in general terms there is not a one to one relationship between credits and learning outcomes. The time required for the average learner or typical student to achieve the learning outcomes is decided not only by the volume of knowledge and skills to be taught and learned but also by the context in which the process of learning takes place. A countries’ culture of learning, the institution, the organization of teaching, learning and assessment as well as the qualities and level of students are decisive elements in how much time the average learner will need to achieve the learning outcomes. Student time required in the given context, expressed in terms of workload, decides the number of credits. It shows at the same time that learning outcomes are in practice limited by the number of credits available for a unit as part of a study programme. In other words: learning outcomes and credits (should) keep each other in balance. In this respect, the calculation of credits is of crucial importance. Tuning offers an approach and gives examples of good practice how this calculation can be done in practice.
As an illustration of the complex relationship between credits and learning outcomes, the following example is given. This example is derived from the Common European Framework of References for Languages. In this framework different levels from A1 (very basic) to C2 (near native) are distinguished. These levels are described in learning outcomes expressed in terms of competences. Tuning states that for different groups of learners the workload (and therefore the number of credits required) will differ to obtain the same level of a competence. A typical French higher education student might need 30 ECTS-credits to achieve a competence of Spanish at level C1, while a typical Dutch student might require 60 ECTS-credits to achieve the same level. This difference is related to the fact that the starting conditions and context for the two students are different: for a Dutch student it will be easier to learn another Germanic language while for a French student it will be easier to learn another Romance language. As stated before, the effectiveness of learning and teaching pathways might also influence the amount of credits required to achieve a set of learning outcomes. In other words, the example shows that we can not say in an arbitrary way that the C1 learning outcome equals an x amount of credits for all learners regardless their context. The x will be different for every country and might differ from provider to provider, depending on the effectiveness of the learning process.
Tuning differentiates between learning outcomes and competences. This distinction is made to show the different roles of teaching staff and students or learners. Learning outcomes are formulated by staff on the level of a study programme as well as single course or learning units. Competences are obtained by the learner. The level of competences obtained by the learner can be lower or higher than determined by the learning outcomes. The level of competences obtained is expressed in a mark or grade. Competences are not linked to one unit, but are developed during the total learning process of a study programme.
In practice two types of learning outcomes are used: so-called threshold learning outcomes, which determine the pass level, and so-called desired learning outcomes. Desired learning outcomes express what the teaching staff expects from the typical learner in terms of the level of competences to be obtained. Tuning has a preference for the concept of desired learning outcomes, because - at least at present - it seems to fit better in the teaching and learning culture of the vast majority of European countries.