Some people, who see learning outcomes more as accountability tools, may shout ‘MANAGERS’. Others, who espouse the student-centred notions of learning outcomes, will most probably shout ‘STUDENTS’. The literature would certainly suggest that these are the two main audiences for learning outcomes.
But, if we take the most educationally ideal answer, i.e. ‘students’, are they the ones who are actually using learning outcomes? Much of the literature, particularly the ‘grey’ online literature, is directed towards teachers and focuses extensively on aspects such as how to write learning outcomes, how to implement them within their own courses, modules, etc, and how to align them to assessment (good example from HEA). Through our own research here at the University of Leicester we have heard many academics saying that they use learning outcomes to a large extent to help direct their thinking around module development and module planning. As I indicate, there is a lot of ‘grey’ information out there to help them do this (a google search for ‘writing learning outcomes’ yields over 14 million results!).
But, given that learning outcomes are supposed to epitomise student-centred learning, where is the information or guidance for students about how to work with them effectively? Are we supposing that a learning outcome’s work is done once a student has simply read it? Is that where its job for students ends? No. I would suggest that implicit within the learning outcomes movement is the idea that these outcomes should be used by students to help them judge for themselves the progress of their learning and the extent to which they feel they will achieve (or are on the road to achieving) the learning outcome at the end of the module (or particular learning experience). But I have yet to come across any guidance for students about how they actually work with their learning outcomes in this way (if you have then please let me know).
So I am starting to question the student-centred claims about learning outcomes. Yes, they are written from a students’ perspective and they tell them what they should know/be able to do at the end of their learning experience. But that seems to be where the focus on students ends. Could we argue then that learning outcomes, as they currently stand, are still primarily teacher-focused rather than learner-focused? Teachers write them (mostly) and use them to frame and plan their modules/courses/programmes, teaching activities and assessments. I’m not sure then that simply phrasing learning outcomes from a student’s perspective warrants their ‘student-centred’ claim.
In our ‘Learning Outcomes Project’ at the University of Leicester we have been developing a resource that gives ideas to students about how they could use their learning outcomes to support their independent studying. We hope to share with readers some aspects of this resource in the near future.
In the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear how others are encouraging their students to work with their learning outcomes. Or rather I should say I’d be interested to hear if this is in fact occurring anywhere at all (I’m struggling to find evidence that it is!). Are teachers/lecturers encouraging students to engage with their learning outcomes and if so how? If not, why not? Is this encouragement misguided? Should it be given to students at all? Can learning outcomes be ‘student-centred’ without it?