The Complexity of Meaningful Learning Outcomes

BubblesI was reminded this week of the similarity between designing a research question and writing a learning outcome.

In undergraduate research the most common challenge is determining the appropriate scope for a research question. Not too broad, such as what causes addiction or what is the role of kings? Yet not too specific or too shallow that one struggles to find sufficient data or literature.

There is an art to writing research questions that is informed by prior experience, colleagues, as well as a good dose of trial and error; similarly for learning outcomes. In addition to feedback from colleagues and personal reflection, there are tricks for assessing research topics quickly. For example, toss a phrase into a search engine or database. If you find 5 matches the topic may be too narrow, or 600,000 matches the topic may be too broad.

What about learning outcomes or other goals for our students? I started thinking about how we check if a statement is too broad or not broad enough. Perhaps one can check the amount a course outcome is assessed, or count the number of courses that fit a particular program outcome. The extent of overlap across learning outcomes as well as gaps can suggest if fewer or more outcomes are needed.

But these tricks do not produce black and white answers. A research topic with many matches may still be specific enough if combined with a particular population, context or methodology. Similarly, one program outcome may only map to one course in one option but still be important for that option. Such instances allow for discussion and highlight points for reflecting on what are we collectively interested in knowing and where do we go from here.

Black-and-white answers, and even a scan-and-get-green-light machine, may seem easier than relying on feedback or trial and error, but our courses and programs are worth a deeper contextual understanding of what is meaningful.

It’s a good thing academics and researchers are curious for there is much to clarify, discover and (re)think.

Below are some general resources for writing learning outcomes:

Photo by Murtada al Mousawy

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