What’s the Point? Thinking About Learning Outcomes

Recently, I’ve been re-tooling a couple of my courses to align with the common outcomes of my institution’s new core curriculum. I like our new core–a lot, actually–but I always squirm a little bit when confronted with the dialect of assessment. “Outcome” can connote, I think, the result of some discrete process that begins and ends with my course. Like I’m supposed to open students’ heads, put in some History stuff, and POOF–there are certain “outcomes,” just as a new Buick is the “outcome” of the production process in the Buick plant. I know that’s not what we mean when we use the word, and I am actually a huge proponent of intentional course design and robust assessment–but I am also a word geek–and “outcome” sticks in my craw a little bit. It smacks of the business-speak, corporate lingo that is creeping into higher education, asking us to have “deliverables” and “measurables” that lead to “successful outcomes.” I’ll tilt at that windmill on another occasion perhaps, but here I’d like to unpack the idea of “outcomes” a little further.55935713

 

 

 

I’d like to advocate for an expanded understanding of “outcomes,” where they are not necessarily ‘final results.’ Just as the outcome of a good set of Socratic questions is more questions, course outcomes can be–and I think should be–seen as processes instead of finished products. Truly deep learning is when students realize that “knowing” is always an unfinished journey–that their minds and understandings are constantly becoming something else–it’s journeying without arrival. So shouldn’t course outcomes–as goals for what the course should do to and for students’ intellectual and personal growth–be seen in this process-ish sense as well?

It’s for this reason that several years ago I adopted Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning Experiences, as well as the larger process of Integrated Course Design he outlines in his book Creating Significant Learning ExperiencesWhat I like about Fink’s understanding of “significant learning experiences” is its emphasis on the larger, metacognitive  experiences that make up truly deep learning for students. So his taxonomy has the foundational understand-and-remember-content stuff, but also “Caring,” “Human Dimension,” and “Learning How to Learn.” In a traditionally content and lecture-heavy field such as History, framing outcomes in these areas can really revolutionize how one approaches and teaches their courses. It did for me. Here’s a sample statement of course outcomes from one of my syllabi (my History of Capitalism course) that incorporates Fink’s taxonomy:

Foundational Knowledge

  • Understand & remember the key ideas and historical events in the development of world capitalism

Application

  • Demonstrate the ability to apply historical content and method in both verbal and written settings

  • Understand how the ‘meta-skills’ important in this class are integral components of your success in other academic endeavors.

Integration

  • Make connections between historical developments related to capitalism and issues and debates within today’s capitalist societies.

Human Dimension

  • Understand, analyze, and describe the ways in which capitalism and capitalist development have shaped both individuals’ lives and the development of societies.

Caring

  • Develop a sense of identification with the past as lived experience and value having a sense of history.

  • Appreciate the richness and complexity of non-US societies and value cross-cultural perspectives.

Learning How to Learn

  • Develop an understanding of the skills necessary for success in this course—and an understanding of why they are necessary.

  • Translate that understanding into a plan of how you intend to apply these skills in future courses or endeavors.

 

My students are always surprised that the content-based stuff (names, dates, remember-this) is only articulated once–and the rest of the goals transcend, at least in part, the specific content of the course. And, for that matter, many of my colleagues in History are as well. How do you assess these? Don’t you test them on content? What if they don’t learn about [specific historical thing near and dear to my heart]? Won’t you have failed them? All this “caring” stuff? What about CONTENT? Our students are historically illiterate! If you don’t teach them History, then WESTERN CIVILIZATION WILL COLLAPSE YOU HEARTLESS BASTARD.

I used to frame all of my course outcomes in terms of content–here’s a list of specific stuff you will know at the end of the semester, I will give you an exam that verifies that knowledge, and we’re done here. But if that’s all we want students to learn in a history course, why don’t we just give them the Timetables of History, plop them in front of a documentary film playlist, and then give a 200-question objective exam to see if they’re “historically literate?” Because isn’t that the equivalent of a good number of straight-lecture, content-plug-and-chug courses?

All sorts of research has shown that students don’t really retain much of the specific content of a course after several months (and certainly years) have passed. Seriously–think back to your college courses. What did you do in Adolescent Psych? Or Astronomy? You don’t remember, do you? So what makes you think your students will remember everything you “covered” in Western Civ II? Now, the implications here can be depressing. If they don’t remember, why do we teach them? If it all goes out of their head after the final exam, what was the point of that exquisitely-crafted lecture on the Byzantine Empire? WHAT HAVE I SPENT MY PROFESSIONAL LIFE DOING IT’S ALL BEEN A WASTE I MUST NOW PONDER MY BLEAK EXISTENCE.

Well, you can stare into the existential void if you want, or, alternatively, you can reconsider the notion of Outcomes. That was what I did. My students may not (probably will not) remember all of the specific things we read and discussed in my Capitalism class. And that’s OK. I have to ask myself when I design a course: What do I want my students to take with them and still have with them years from now? What does this experience need to give to them? 

Reflecting on these questions, I decided that what I really want is for my students to think like historians think, to be critical and reflective consumers of information, to develop their understanding of how they learn, and to approach other peoples, periods, and ideas in an empathetic and open-minded manner. Those things can be retained, long after specific content has left. They are habits of mind, ways of approaching specific content that are necessary in my course–but also in many other endeavors, academic or otherwise. So in addition to content-based essays and examinations, my students blog about the readings and issues raised by our discussions. They do debates in which they are assigned positions by random drawing; they have to advocate for a perspective that they may not agree with, or share, but they have to unpack it and examine how people who do hold that view see things. They write a reflective essay where they step outside the specific course content to analyze and reflect upon the ways in which they succeeded and failed in the course–then they frame a plan for using those insights in the rest of their academic program.

All of these are able to be consistently and thoroughly assessed; or, if you wish, these “deliverables” are “measurable.” My students and I can trace their development of these metacognitive skills in addition to their proficiency in particular areas of the specific course content. But the “outcomes” of my courses are benchmarks, not final summaries, in their intellectual and academic development. As it should be.

So when we look at “outcomes” (and this would hold true on the curricular level, not just for individual courses), we should embrace a larger scope for the term. Let’s challenge ourselves to define outcomes as tangible artifacts of the ways in which we help our students on their journeys. Let’s advocate for assessments that incorporate reflection and metacognition. Let’s look to the larger contributions that our courses make to our disciplines, and that our disciplines make to an understanding of the world for our students. If we as faculty are looking to claim assessment as an authentic process that gets at the real objects of higher education, the way we talk about outcomes should reflect that mission.

 

 

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