Learning Outcomes Aren’t All Bad

A recent post to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) blog got me thinking again about the role that learning outcomes have played in my own professional development as a teacher, and about some of the reasons why learning outcomes can get a bad rap among professors. There are some fair reasons why faculty may not readily jump on board the learning outcomes bandwagon, and these ought to be considered. Reasoned critique does not always occur, however. Learning outcomes, and indeed broader discussions about assessment and accountability in teaching can become so polarized that otherwise committed instructors take one look at Bloom’s Taxonomy and want to run for the hills.

In more positive vein, in the aforementioned HECQO blog, Alexandra McFarlane, an HEQCO researcher, describes how good learning outcomes made it easier for her to articulate what she knew to potential employers after she graduated from Queen’s University. She also found it valuable in her post-secondary teaching; in her blog post she describes a kind of ah-ha moment, in which she took a hard look at her syllabus and realized that outcomes like “critical thinking, problem solving, and communication” could be described in more concrete terms that could help both her and her student to know if they were on the right track.

I had a similar ah-ha moment in a learning outcomes workshop I took about three years ago with our own Centre for Teaching and Learning, and a colleague recently shared a similar account after taking CTL’s increasingly popular workshop series, Designing Your Blended Course. For both of us, the act of deconstructing our teaching in terms of learning outcomes was a surprisingly challenging and enlightening process. It didn’t just change our syllabi – it changed the way we taught, and thought about teaching. Our assignments, exams, and planning were fuelled by greater confidence that we were making our expectations more clear for students, and feedback for both of us has suggested that students appreciate this and find their learning more meaningful as a result.

So what’s the problem with learning outcomes then? Some faculty, after all, have no interest in going down the “learning outcomes” road. Resistance – usually in the form of quiet inaction – is fuelled by at least a couple of critiques that deserve to be taken seriously. The first point of resistance is that some faculty are skeptical of centralized initiatives on their campuses, which can be seen as undermining the academic mission in favour of instrumental and managerial interests. Critiques of “academic capitalism” have been robust (Chan & Fisher, 2008; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2009), and faculty quite reasonably trouble the extent to which academic freedom can be undermined as professional management structures compete with those of traditional academic governance. So when centralized units promote improved teaching, faculty wonder what accountability measures will accompany it, and how the integrity of their disciplines may be compromised in the process.

The second reason to be skeptical of learning outcomes is that they are often presented in highly technical and instrumental language. Guides to writing learning objectives almost uniformly advise that these should be specific and measurable. Many call for fine-grained articulation of cognitive, behavioural and affective outcomes. The analytic act of breaking down these objectives can lead to fragmentation and incoherence. Synthetic, “big picture” understandings are eroded. In essence, one loses the forest for the trees.

Hands down, the best critique I have read on the topic of learning outcomes is an article by Harry Torrance (2007).[1] The author distinguishes between “assessment for learning” and “assessment as learning.” In the latter case, outcomes are so detailed and so highly specified that neither the student nor the instructor is required to take risks, think creatively, or even think for themselves. Torrance speaks for practitioners who understand, deeply and intuitively, that the really important outcomes like learner autonomy, creativity, enthusiasm and criticality can, paradoxically, become lost in the very effort to articulate them in “measurable” ways.

Managerialism and instrumentalism thus stand as two powerful critiques that might prevent a higher education teacher from scrutinizing her syllabus, and unpacking her otherwise tacit understandings of outcomes. But this kind of resistance, whether articulated or (again) tacit, plays into the idea that attentive course design and assessment are akin to technocratic sell-out. It needn’t be so. My own experience, like that of blogger MacFarlane’s was liberating. It gave me fresh insight into my practice. It challenged my unwitting fall into the way my long-running course had “always been taught” in my department. It inspired me to seek out better content, and to think artfully about its presentation. It improved my relationships with my students because I could better articulate the reasons why we were sharing a class together.

Most importantly, higher education teachers can keep in mind that academic freedom (still) exists. We have the freedom to engage, consider and evaluate what instructional design principles have to offer, and we have the freedom to apply these to our practices as we judge to be best for students, and the advancement of our disciplines.

We want our students to be “critical thinkers,” able to work with the best ideas, reject what is damaging or wrong, and be able to explain how and why they made these distinctions. Faculty have and can model the same critical thinking by engaging design and assessment practices. We can adopt the aspects of instructional design that genuinely improve practice, and challenge those that seem to undermine higher order thinking rather than promote it.

To find out more about how to plan a course, or re-think a course you are already teaching, the Centre for Teaching and Learning has many resources to support your efforts. Watch online tutorials, attend a class, book a session for your department, or arrange for one-on-one consultations.

References

Chan, A., & Fisher, D. (2008). The exchange university: The corporatization of academic culture. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2009). Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state, and higher education. Balitimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Torrance, H. (2007). How the use of explicit learning objectives, assessment criteria and feedback in post-secondary education and training can come to dominate learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 14(3), 281–294. doi:10.1080/09695940701591867

[1] Also see Maher (2004). Learning outcomes in higher education: Implications for curriculum design and student learning. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education, 3(2), 46-54.

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