This is the first post in a series of irregular blog posts based on my experience working at a teaching-intensive institution.
I’m celebrating an anniversary. A year ago, I met learning outcomes. These (sometimes not-so) pithy statements have been making their way onto syllabi, bloating them beyond recognition. It was, as one might say, love at first sight. I was changed by learning outcomes. They became my best friends. I couldn’t remember a (teaching) life before learning outcomes, couldn’t imagine living without them. Approaching course design from the perspective of student-facing learning outcomes has helped me be an intentional and reflective practitioner.
The learning outcomes I’m describing aren’t the capitalized “Learning Outcomes” of corporate eduspeak. Teachers at the K-12 level are intimately familiar with these Learning Outcomes, an endless, revolving whirlpool of new educational programs handed down from districts, states, or the Department of Education with the ignoble goal of raising standardized test scores. Similar initiatives are coming soon to a university near you. We would do well to be suspicious of education pundits, standards-makers, and Orwellian-titled foundations claiming that Learning Outcomes are the solutions to the problems plaguing K-12 and liberal arts education alike. We should raise our eyebrows at institution-wide programs pressed upon us, like the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ optimistic and jingoistically titled “Liberal Education and America’s Promise” – LEAP – Outcomes (a promise for whom?). Learning Outcome solutionism has bred justifiable concern about the relationship between neo-liberalism and assessment. As such, the phrase “Learning Outcome” bears a whiff of instrumentality; they, that willful, mysterious they, are coming for your disciplinary knowledge, your academic freedom, forcing you to serve customer-students in the great burger-flipping enterprise that is 21st-century higher education.
Yet, the humble, uncapitalized “learning outcome” is a professor’s friend. If you prefer, think of them as course “goals” or “objectives.” These statements, articulated on a syllabus, provide important signposts for our students. They signal that we have thought through our commitment to our craft. At times, I even collaboratively generate learning outcomes with my students, assigning the class the task of answering the questions: “Why are we here?” and “What are we going to do together?” Putting these statements in writing for the students gives them a way to gauge their progress and communicates that we, as professors, are approaching the course with an eye towards student development. To identify outcomes that you, as a professor, have developed for your class – whether with the class or by yourself – is not to cede your soul to the corporate university but to give your students insight on your vision for the course and to welcome them into the classroom by empowering them to take charge of their learning.
Somehow, I made it through three pedagogy courses without anyone mentioning that syllabi should demonstrate our interest in what our students are learning. I don’t think my case is unusual, but at best, it’s R1 snobbery that devalues teaching as a practice and at worst, it’s professional malpractice. My first experience with articulating outcomes began when I was assigned a section of World Literature II last fall. This grandly titled general education course makes a hefty promise in the course catalog: “A study of major works of world literature focusing on literatures from Eighteenth Century to the present.” Somewhere in the universe, David Damrosch and Gayatri Spivak are drinking coffee and laughing at everyone tasked to teach “world literature.” The folly of the “world literature” survey makes any obvious learning outcome (“learn about world literature”) laughable. I realized that I couldn’t rely on an implicit content goal like “read representative texts from world literature.” Yet, I could articulate the following goals for a course:
- To read a range of texts from around the world from the 18th century to the present;
- To learn how historical and cultural contexts shape literature and vice versa;
- To gain knowledge about the diversity of the world through the diversity of world
- To appreciate literature as an art form;
- To develop critical reading and critical thinking skills;
- To practice literary analysis;
- To practice writing about literature.
While teaching World Lit II, I can’t presume that students will be able to master “world literature” in terms of content by the end of the course, but I could aim for students to demonstrate the ability to:
- Explain how a text comments on or responds to historical and social context;
- Understand and interpret themes in a literary work;
- Identify and interpret formal elements in a literary work;
- Establish an argument in literary analysis;
- Support an argument in literary analysis;
- Analyze a question or text from multiple perspectives;
- Synthesize information, arguments, and perspectives to create meaning, insight, and understanding.
Though “knowledge of world literature” is a tall order for a semester-long class, knowledge of the following is practically achievable:
- Content of specific literary works from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas from the 18th century through the present;
Literary influences, movements, and traditions;
Historical backgrounds and social settings;
- Literary terms and critical vocabulary;
- Literary genres.
Content, in this model, is secondary to the learning outcomes. This works well in my department, where courses are leveled according to aggregate skill development rather than content. Naturally, such an approach may not work for a discipline (looking at you, Chemistry!) that requires aggregate content knowledge. I’m predisposed towards the idea that “coverage” is more or less ancillary to what I’m doing with a class, an idea that Mark Sample has examined better than I could.
Though I first turned to learning outcomes because of the World Lit II course, I use them in all my classes. They are especially useful for creating assignments. Approaching a course from the standpoint of its learning outcomes allows professors to design assignments and assignment sequences that are targeted towards meeting course goals. Students will be able to see assignments as more than busywork or punitive assessment. I found that my own approach to summative and formative assessment of my students shifted from asking them to demonstrate their understanding or skills towards exploring and synthesizing their experience as learners. To ensure that my students understand the relationship between assignments and learning outcomes, I list assignments on the syllabus and indicate the objectives they are intended to address, like so:
What I am really making the case for here, in my paean to learning outcomes, is the transparency that must be at the heart of the contract between our students and ourselves. This is not the “contract” of the syllabus itself but the compact we forge with our students as we embark on a semester’s journey together. Yet, the syllabus is a document that makes a course transparent, that by definition shows light through our course design. Students often lament that they do not understand the purpose behind an assignment or can’t figure out that dreaded, nebulous “what the professor is looking for.” To frame a course in this way is to open up a space that seems inscrutable to students: the space of learning. In doing so, we can empower them to take ownership of their experiences. The roots of this approach to teaching appear on my syllabus – as learning outcomes.
Richlin, Laurie and Shirley Ronkowski. Blueprint for Learning: Creating College Courses to Facilitate, Assess, and Document Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2006.
Mark Sample also has a great post for the how-to of course design using learning goals: “Teaching for Enduring Understanding” (2011).