I came across this blog piece the other day: ‘Objectives versus outcomes’.
I want to comment on it here because I think it reinforces, unintentionally, some of the concerns and worries that some scholars have concerning learning outcomes.
I should state right off that the blog piece is not connected with an educational institution. Instead, it has been written by a company that develops educational resources for its clients. That context may have an impact on the perspective the company takes towards learning outcomes.
The perspective that is taken appears to be that learning outcomes are extremely useful for conveying to the learner exactly what is expected of them, e.g.:
what matters is how useful these statements are in providing a good blueprint for the design of instruction, assessment, and evaluation.
However, where I think some scholars concerns about learning outcomes may be substantiated is the emphasis on conveying to the learner exactly what is expected of them:
the importance of [refining learning outcomes] becomes even more significant at higher levels of cognition. If we say a student should be able to “analyze” something, what—exactly—does that mean? Do we want them to compare and contrast different aspects? Differentiate an item from other like items? If we ask students to “evaluate” an argument, what measures are important? Do we expect them to make an argument and defend it with evidence from a particular source?
To me, this paragraph makes learning seem very teacher-directed and teacher-controlled, which is against the student-centred notions of learning outcomes. It seems to take away any kind of creativity, flexibility or agency in the learner to, for example, decide which measures are important when evaluating an argument. If learning outcomes were to be as prescribed as suggested in this paragraph, I would begin to agree with Hussey and Smith or Buss that they do restrict, rather than support, learning.
The blog ends with the following paragraph:
What [matters] is that individuals developing high-quality lessons refine these statements to the point that they can directly and unequivocally drive instruction and evaluation. Don’t be satisfied once you’ve replaced “understand” with a measurable verb. Think about all of the different ways the statement might be interpreted, and try to refine it to the point that it reflects the real intent of the instruction.
Shouldn’t interpretation, to some extent, be a part of learning? If learners were working only within the parameters set by the tutor, they would only produce what is already known by the tutor. How would any new knowledge, analyses, interpretations, ever be developed? For me, one of the best parts about teaching has always been when discussions with students or reading their assignments has made me think: ‘I’ve never thought about it like that before’. Having a student open up new ideas about a subject or topic you know really well is always amazing.
So I do become as worried as certain other people when I see learning outcomes used to such a prescriptive extent in learning. Other blog posts show I’m concerned to make them a more meaningful learning tool, which I sincerely think that they can be – but not like this.
It’s possible that this company may be more focused on instruction and training rather than education in its widest sense, and from that perspective, prescriptive learning outcomes may indeed by useful. I do not refer to this company’s blog post to denounce their views, but merely to show the perspective of learning outcomes that I hope does not take hold within higher education.