As part of the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’, I’m always very eager to see the different contexts in which other academics/scholars write about learning outcomes (LOs). Last week I came across a piece from Graham Gibbs on the SEDA blog in which he discusses the importance of conveying clear and high expectations to students. The key message for me from the piece was that high expectations need to be communicated to students, not the threshold or bare minimum that they have to do, and an effective method for communicating these high expectations may be using exemplars of previous exceptional work. It is a thought-provoking piece that I would encourage others to read.
As I indicate above, I was particularly interested in this piece because LOs were included in the discussion. Gibbs argues that quality assurance regulations have led to LOs being implemented across institutions for their apparent ability to convey clear expectations. However, my use of the word ‘apparent’ is significant as, for Gibbs, the situation is far less straightforward:
All of this is supposed to convey clear expectations. However there is a growing realisation that, first, it is very difficult for anyone to understand what learning outcomes and criteria actually mean, or for two people to understand the same thing – including teachers and markers. Second, that the more detail is provided, the more detail students demand. Third, that the big, complex and important goals teachers care about can come to be replaced by small, simple and trivial goals that seem easier to specify. This is a problem that was encountered with ‘behavioural objectives’ in the 1950’s and 60’s to such an extent that such objectives were largely abandoned in the UK (though not in the US). And fourth, that the greater the degree of specification, the easier it is for students to see clearly what they do not need to do, resulting in them narrowing their attention in a strategic way.
I don’t take issue with any of the arguments Gibbs is making here. They are arguments that are well-known within the LOs literature and have been made by various scholars (see for example Hussey and Smith, 2002). They are also perhaps fairly logical arguments to make about what could potentially be the consequences of a LOs approach in HE.
But again, my use of ‘could potentially’ is significant here. My issue, or rather the point I would like to make in response to these comments from Gibbs, is that whenever claims like these are made about LOs, evidence is rarely given to support them.
In the paper that the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’ has just had published, we show that, currently, there is very little evidence about how students view and use LOs. As such, our understandings about the impact of LOs on student learning is very limited. Our paper goes on to present the research that we have conducted with students. Some of our key findings were that the majority of our participants found LOs useful and wanted them to remain a part of their learning experience. Encouragingly, some in our focus groups indicated that they did not want to narrow their learning around LOs but rather use the LOs as a guide from which they could then develop and extend their learning according to their own interests and passions.
Similarly, in a paper to be published soon, we present the results of research conducted with academic staff about their views and uses of LOs. We found little indication that the ‘important goals teachers care about’ were becoming ‘replaced by small, simple and trivial goals that seem easier to specify’. In actuality, academics’ responses indicated that their use of LOs is far more nuanced than general statements such as Gibbs’ suggest. I have also discussed in other blog posts how LOs can be used to support broader educational goals, and within these discussions I draw on work others are doing in this area.
My point here is not necessarily to refute anything that Gibbs is saying about LOs, but to highlight that these arguments are often made from what appears to be a ‘common-sense’ perspective rather than an evidentiary one. Further, the evidence the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’ has gained so far does not always support these ‘common-sense’ claims.
But again, my aim here is not to suggest that scholars are at fault with the arguments they are making. Instead, I am saying that we need to now move beyond these oft-made and oft-cited complaints about LOs as they don’t move our understandings about this topic forward. In connection to my previous post, these grand statements don’t take account of the nuances within the situations in which both the students and staff in our research are applying and using LOs. These grand statements don’t even actually imply that there could be nuances within these situations. As such, they don’t help us to understand how LOs are being used in practice, and what impact they might be having on teaching and learning.
At the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’, we are moving beyond these statements to research and provide evidence about the actual uses and impacts of LOs on students, staff and HE as a whole. In this way we hope to drive discussions and understandings about this topic forward.