Are Learning Outcomes Corrosive? Isn’t it About How You Frame Them?



Students in a Harvard Business School classroomA recent article in CAUT Bulletin (January 2013) by Frank Furedi discussed the corrosiveness of learning outcomes. As I read through the author’s comments and opinions, I returned to the same questions of: “Isn’t it about how you frame learning outcomes? Shouldn’t the conversations be about how learning outcomes contribute to the learning process? Shouldn’t we as educators be focused on student learning?”

I found the article to be very interesting, as I believe that each of the author’s arguments against learning outcomes may be flipped around to show the positive aspects.

The article lists four main consequences of learning outcomes:

First, that learning outcomes threaten to disrupt the conduct of the academic relationship between teacher and student.

Second, is that learning outcomes foster a climate that inhibits the capacity of students and teachers to deal with uncertainty.

The third argument is that they devalue the art of teaching. The art of teaching depends on exercising judgment based on experience.

The fourth consequence of learning outcomes is that it breeds a culture of cynicism and irresponsibility.

The above four arguments may be flipped or reframed to present the positive aspects of learning outcomes. For instance, for number one I would say that learning outcomes strengthen the academic student –teacher relationship by building a stronger connection, trust and student confidence. If students feel confidence and feel safe to make mistakes or experiment, then these qualities strengthen the academic relationship. Without learning outcomes or a map to see where the students are headed, they may feel lost and give up. Obviously, as in any relationship, there needs to be flexibility and common sense. Providing a pathway through learning outcomes allows for students to have an understanding of what is ahead and decide for themselves how to achieve the outcome.

As for learning outcomes inhibiting uncertainty, no, they do not. They help the student to see where they are headed but do not prevent obstacles from appearing or uncertainty from arising. Learning outcomes provide a goal to reach and help prepare students to reach that goal. Yet it is the student’s responsibility and motivation to decide how to reach that goal or to overcomes obstacles. Learning outcomes do not inhibit uncertainty, creativity or the art of teaching. They contribute to the art of teaching by allowing for creativity. Creativity is achieved through curiosity, a trusting environment and having the confidence to experiment. The art of teaching does not need to be lost by providing a pathway through the use of learning outcomes. It should be increased through the confidence to experiment and the motivation to learn new things. Utilizing learning outcomes does not mean that students are being funneled through a class with the sole purpose of the end result. Designing learning outcomes and a path that allows for deviation will enhance a class; not be corrosive.

The last argument that states learning outcomes breed a culture of cynicism and irresponsibility, can be flipped around as well; though of course it depends on the individual teacher and administration. If as a teacher you are unhappy with learning outcomes as you see them as an auditing tool and a sign of a lack of trust, then in most cases the teacher will be cynical about them. But if you reframe and see how learning outcomes are student centred and meant to increase the learning process; then as a teacher you may be more accepting. For me it comes down to doing what is best for the student. By focusing on the best teaching strategies and methods to achieve a learning outcome will enhance the learning process.

Photo by HBS1908 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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