A few weeks ago I discussed comments Graham Gibbs had made on a SEDA blog post about learning outcomes. His post was part of his ’53 powerful ideas all teachers should know about’, which I would certainly encourage all educators to engage with.
The other day I came across his 7th idea on the SEDA blog – #53ideas 7- Students’ expectations are formed early. What interested me about this post was that it seemed to be an effective argument for learning outcomes, even though in his previous post he had made strong arguments against them.
The overall argument in Gibbs’ ‘student expectations’ post is that it is often not made clear to students starting in HE what is expected of them, what university learning entails, and the type of learning they should be engaging in, e.g.:
The volume of material ‘covered’ in lectures may appear daunting, and it may be unclear if this is meant to be merely the tip of a hidden, huge and undefined iceberg of content, or the whole iceberg. If you managed to scribble down a comprehensive set of notes, would that be enough? What an essay or a report is supposed to look like and what is good enough to pass or get a top grade may be quite different from what was expected at school, but you may be unclear in what way.
He suggests students may be overwhelmed by the lack of understanding and explicit guidance about what is expected of them:
By the end of the first year, students may have turned into cabbages in response to this regime, with little development of independence of mind or study habits. In the second year students may be suddenly expected to work collaboratively, undertake peer assessment, undertake much bigger, longer, less well defined learning activities…They may throw up their hands in despair or resist strongly.
He ends his blog piece with some sound advice about the need for teachers to ‘get their own expectations in early and explicitly’. Within his comments here he says:
If you want them to establish a pattern of putting in a full working week of 40 hours then expect that in the first week, and the second week….and make it clear what those hours might be spent on…In brief, get your clear and high expectations in early, with plenty of opportunity to discuss what they mean.
These particular comments made me think immediately of learning outcomes. I do not suggest that they are the total solution of course – the matter is far more complex than that. But they are one way in which expectations for what will be covered in modules can be conveyed to students and so give them guidance about how to organise and direct their independent studying.
I fully agree with Gibbs that long reading lists can be intimidating and not always helpful in conveying to students where they should be focusing their attention. Outlines of topics that will be covered in forthcoming lectures/seminars/workshops may also not always offer the student much help in understanding how to focus their learning outside of those classes.
But, if explicit expectations are given to the student about what they should know or be able to do at the end of the module, then they could direct their learning (and use of reading lists etc) much more purposefully. I cannot think of a valid argument for why learning outcomes would not be extremely useful to students in this way.
Of course, there have been many arguments made against learning outcomes – a common one being (and one that is made by Gibbs in his previous piece that I commented on) that it is a flawed assumption that learning outcomes can convey clear expectations. Gibbs says on this point:
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.
I take this point and agree that it would be extremely naïve for anyone to think that a statement can only have one interpretation and be understood by a great diversity of people in only one way. But, if we follow that logic through, wouldn’t it mean that we cannot expect essay questions or exam questions to convey clear expectations? They often use the same type of language as learning outcomes (analyse, evaluate, define, etc), yet they are expected to mean the same thing to students, teachers and markers. True, students could discuss essay questions/titles with their tutors before embarking on the assignment, but they could do the same with their learning outcomes. Who says that once tutors write learning outcomes that they cannot be discussed and further interpreted in collaboration/conjunction with their students.
My aim here is not to get into a full scale debate about language, meaning and understanding in higher education. Rather, it is to suggest that learning outcomes should not be written off because of similar tensions or challenges that are apparent in many other elements of HE learning too.
I would never suggest that learning outcomes on their own can convey to students everything that is expected of them. But I certainly believe that they are a tool, or an approach, that can be used in conjunction with others that can help to alleviate for students some of the ‘ambiguity and complexity’ that they might be experiencing as they adjust to their HE experience.