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 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Students Prefer Good Lectures Over the Latest Technology in Class?

An article appearing in January’s University Affairs indicated that students prefer a good lecture over technology in the classroom.  The article states ‘university students prefer the “old school” approach of an engaging lecture over the use of the latest technological bells and whistles in the classroom’.

I have not read the full report of the survey but would like to comment on the article. The survey of 15, 000 students and 2, 500 instructors across Quebec (with 10% and 20% responding respectively) indicated a preference for lecture over technology in the classroom but does not mention learning outcomes.  Statements like this alarm me.  Most instructors know that student preference does not equate with learning outcomes. However some instructors may not and published results such as the University Affairs’ article may lead to increased lecturing and less engagement through student interaction.

If I recall correctly from my early teaching days, if students hear the content they remember some; if they hear and see, the retention is better; and if they hear, see and engage through interaction, the learning process improves considerably. Interaction takes work. Think of when you were at a conference and asked to discuss a question with the person beside you.  Usually my first thought is do I have to? But once engaged in the conversation, in most cases, I come away with more.

My second concern with the article is that not all instructors offer engaging or good lectures.  This survey’s result may lead to more instructors just lecturing; lectures that may not be engaging.  Yet I am hopeful that students and instructor focus on the word good lecture with the result that instructors start the learning process with good lectures leading to student engagement.

Course Learning Outcomes or Course Learning Objectives?

What exactly are course learning outcomes and why are higher educational institutions moving in this direction? First, the distinction between course learning outcomes and course learning objectives needs to be established. Course learning outcomes are student-centred and are statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand, and/or be able to demonstrate after completion of a process of learning (Kennedy et al). On the other hand, course learning objectives are instructor centred and explain what the instructor is responsible for in the course. They should be linked to one’s teaching philosophy and teaching style (Kennedy et al).

There is a shift in the international trends in education from “teacher centred” approach to a “student centred” approach. Some of the reasons for the shift to learning outcomes include:

  • Integrating course design through integrating student needs, instructor expertise and disciplinary requirements,
  • They are a measureable way of demonstrating learning. They clarify course purpose and assessment for learning,
  • Acknowledges relationship of evidence to conclusion,
  • Engagement with course content and
  • Improves overall teaching effectiveness (Ascough, 2011).

Other reasons to shift to learning outcomes includes the alignment between teaching methods, assessment techniques, assessment criteria and learning outcomes.  These connections help to make the learning process more transparent by ensuring that assessment mirrors the learning outcomes.  This type of process includes constructive alignment with constructive identified as the student learning and alignment as the instructor part (Kennedy et al).

Linking course learning outcomes, teaching, learning activities and assessment may be challenging for the instructor.  When writing the course learning outcomes by utilizing Bloom’s three domains of learning – cognitive, affective, and psychomotor –  it will assist in identifying possible teaching and learning activities as well alternative methods for assessment. After clearly defining the course learning outcomes, select teaching and learning methods that ensure the learning outcomes are received. When assessing the course learning outcome, check to see how the student work matched with what was intended.  Rubrics are a great tool for assessment.

There are multiply benefits for the instructor, student and institution to shift from learning objectives to learning outcomes.  It may require revisiting your goals as an instructor; however, understanding course learning outcomes is an essential component to the design process and an opportunity for increased teaching effectiveness.

Ascough, R. (2011). Learning (About) Outcomes: How the focus on assessment can help overall course design. CSSHE 41(2)

Kennedy, D., Hyland, A. & Ryan, N. (2012). Writing and Using Learning Outcomes: A Practical Guide

The Recipe of Adult Education in Today’s Reality

Is there just one essential ingredient in the field of adult education or should it be considered as one essential process of adult education? Can a recipe be perfected with just one ingredient, or is it a mixture of many: social movements, history, lifelong learning, technological impact, diversity, the recognition of differing learning styles and the role of the adult educator? My opinion is that there are many ingredients in the field of adult education but without ‘respect’ the recipe may not be as appetizing.

Respect is required as the foundation to build a learning society. Simultaneously to achieve a learning society, lifeworlds must be provided with the right nutrients for growth (Welton, 2005, p.183). Individuals need love and caring to flourish. This care must be provided by a community.  A weak community may have difficulty in providing love, care and compassion. To build a strong, healthy community requires individuals that have the strength to care, and to share this strength. Dr. Seuss (1971) wrote that to save the trees we need someone that cares, who will plant the last seed and nourish it. To build individual strength requires respect for oneself. Self-respect permits persons to declare that they are entitled to the same status and treatment as every other person (Welton, 2005, p.205). Respect will help achieve a ‘social learning infrastructure’ (p.214).

To build respect into the recipe of adult education requires a common goal of formulating a learning infrastructure from all involved including adult educators, professors, institutes, government, businesses and society. Those involved need to support, collaborate, mentor and be committed to building a learning infrastructure. If respect to build a learning infrastructure is internalized, this respect will shine through in instruction and to the learners.

Seuss, T. (1971). The Lorax. Random House

Welton, M. (2005). Designing the Just Learning Society: A Critical Inquiry. Leicester: NIACE

Welton, M. R. (1987). Vivisecting the nightingale: Reflections on adult education as an object of study. Studies in the Education of Adults 19(1), 46-68.

Surface or Deep Learning?

While I was reading Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Executive by Lindblom-Ylänne, I found myself reflecting on my own learning and asking which of my experiences and courses led me to deep learning? Conversely, what types of activities that I as an instructor have employed have led to deep learning for my students?

Surface approach to learning is described as adopting minimal effort in the learning process. One example of this approach is when reading a text as an exercise the student concentrates on reading the text itself.  A deep approach to learning is based on a genuine interest in the subject matter and the aim is an interpretation of the text.  Lindblom-Ylänne emphasizes that the deep approach leads to higher quality learning while surface learning approaches are institutional creations shifting the focus from the task itself to rewards for task completion (p. 64).

How do faculty design their courses in order to move towards deep learning? Some of the techniques offered include:

  • encouraging students to self-regulate their learning,
  • facilitating student mastery of threshold concepts,
  • teaching students to engage in processes of inquiry,
  • providing congruent learner-environment frameworks; and
  • ensuring students have positive perceptions of teaching as perceptions of good teaching influence a student to move towards a deep approach.

As an instructor, have I tried to use a variety of techniques that lead to deep learning?  Am I conscious of the learning environment ensuring its congruency with my learners’ backgrounds and learning preferences? I try my best but reminders are appreciated and increased research into deep learning is welcomed.

If you are interested in reading this book yourself, there are copies of it in the GMCTE library.

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