I questioned in a previous blog post whether learning outcomes are really deserving of their ‘student-centred’ claim if they are primarily derived by teachers/lecturers and if we have no real idea about how students are actually using them.
The ‘Learning Outcomes Project’ team has recently had a paper published in which we begin to address the issue of how students are using learning outcomes and we are continuing to do further work in this area. This work is vital because for me personally, I feel disconnected from the idea that learning outcomes are ‘student-centred’ and are focused on what the student is doing because these outcomes are, in practice, largely handed down to the student from their tutor. To me this means that though learning outcomes are expressed from the student perspective, they are still primarily teacher-driven. However, all would be different if students themselves were actually involved in the process of creating their learning outcomes.
I came across this ‘Hey, those are MY learning outcomes!’ blog post the other day. A key comment for me in this post was:
a sense of ownership is at the heart of the engagement problem. When we say that learners are ‘hard-to-engage’, what we really mean is that we don’t know how to get learners to take ownership of new behaviours and learning outcomes.
If we could make learning outcomes ‘the property’ of the learner and not something just handed down to them, wouldn’t that make them more student-centred and mean that students might be more engaged to achieve them?
In practice, how could this be done? Lecturers and tutors know the module, the assessment and what needs to be covered in the timeframe that they have. Students, particularly at the beginning of a course of module, don’t know a lot of this – they also don’t know what they don’t know and most likely don’t know what they need to know. But they will still have ideas about why they’ve chosen the course or module and/or what they want to get out of it. I can’t think of any reason why learning outcomes can’t be collaboratively developed by lecturers and their students as the module progresses to take account of what both want to achieve from the process. Broader outcomes could still be pre-specified at the beginning of courses to give students an overall view of what they will be working towards. But more specific and collaboratively defined ones, that fit within the framework of the broader ones, could develop through lecturer and student dialogue and discussion. In this way, students would feel part of a process that is supposed to be ‘student-centred’.
I don’t want to try here to offer ‘the answer’ as to how collaboratively developed learning outcomes could occur. The process would (and should) be unique to each group and learning situation. But I do think it would be worthwhile for every educator to think about how they might or could encourage their students to have a sense of ownership over their learning outcomes, rather than feeling that they are the passive recipients of them.
I come back to the question I keep asking myself – can learning outcomes really be student-centred if they are, in effect, handed down from on high by their teachers? I just don’t think that they can.