The issue of ‘learning outcomes’ often leads to heated debates about their desirability for and applicability to university level learning. I came across this letter by a Professor at Simon Fraser University written to SFU students in which he argues, quite vociferously, against learning outcomes. Some key extracts are:
Students will have less of a voice in the classroom as a result of Learning Outcomes. This is because professors will not have the flexibility to deviate from the Outcomes they have created. Learning Outcomes will be created long before the first day of class. Professors will have pre-determined what you will learn, and what you will be marked on…students will not have a say in Learning Outcomes.
[Learning outcomes] set in stone what a course will look like. If you don’t like it, lump it. It’s not up to you.
Students are not cars in a car factory. You are not our raw material, to assemble as we want. The idea behind Learning Outcomes is that the university will somehow be able to describe precisely what you will turn out to be like
We need for students to have more of a say in their learning. We don’t need more words about what students will be required to do.
Every time I read this letter I can feel the anger emanating from him.
He also says:
This is the case with Learning Outcomes. The more we talk about, in advance, what is going to happen in class, the less chance there will be any wiggle room for innovation.
If I cannot articulate what is wrong for students about Learning Outcomes, then I have no case
The Professor is certainly not alone in his views here. The same, or very similar, arguments are often made by other scholars or educational commentators on the dangers of learning outcomes (LOs). I have to say, though, that this is possibly the angriest piece I’ve come across yet – after reading the whole letter it does feel like LOs are set to destroy all that is good in the world of higher education.
My intention here is not to mock the Professor for his views – as I say, he is not alone in them. It is to highlight, as I’ve done in a previous post, that these, in essence, black and white views about LOs (i.e. that they are either good or bad in or for HE) do not match the empirical data that the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’ has begun to gather.
I noted in my previous post the lack of empirical data on the topic of LOs in HE and I point out that many arguments against LOs are made with no evidence offered to support the claims being made – they are largely, in effect, the author’s fears about what they think will happen.
The Professor’s letter here is a further case in point. He argues that if he cannot articulate what is wrong with LOs, then he has no case. Well, he does articulate his arguments very well – but he has no evidence that LOs will actually create these woeful learning situations. He is not basing his arguments on data (or proof) that these dreadful circumstances will arise from the adoption of an LOs approach – he is basing them on his own fears and concerns. Again, I do not belittle his fears or concerns, but rarely does an initiative or strategy lead to only one type of outcome for the whole diverse community in which it is applied.
At the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’, we are beginning to fill the empirical gap in the knowledge about the actual impact of LOs for students and academic staff. In so doing, I do find it hard not to cringe a little bit when I read extreme, black and white views like this about LOs.
Our data, with both students and academic staff, show that perspectives about and uses of LOs are far more nuanced than these extreme arguments allow for. I must refer here to our paper Learning about learning outcomes: the student perspective, which shows that students, in our study at least, do find LOs useful learning aids and use them in various ways to support their studies. Importantly, some students indicate that they do not focus solely on their LOs when studying but use them more as guides to help direct their independent work – this is not quite the straight-jacket effect on learning that the Professor suggests LOs will have.
The ways in which students use LOs correspond in many ways to how academics in our study report working with LOs (paper to be published soon). Most academics indicate using LOs to help frame their thinking about their module design and assessment, rather than ‘set in stone’ everything that they and their students will do. Almost all academics recognised the dangers of restricting learning around LOs, but stated that it comes down to how LOs are used by tutors. The majority of academics that we interviewed were concerned to use LOs in ways that would retain flexibility for students in their learning. Arguments like the Professor’s above give no agency to academics (or students) to use LOs in ways that support (rather than detract from or oppose) their teaching (or learning) values or pedagogical beliefs.
Before I finish this post, I’d like to just take a few learning outcomes and apply the Professor’s arguments to them to see how well his claims stand up to some scrutiny. These LOs have been gathered through our work on the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’:
LO1 – Identify the significant factors that led to the outbreak of the First World War
LO2 – Analyse key films of the period in relation to their historical contexts of production and reception
LO3 – Justify the appropriateness of the research method(s) chosen for your particular research project
According to the Professor, these LOs are a straight-jacket for the teacher and the student – prescribing only one determined way through the learning journey that neither the teacher nor the student can develop or refine as the module progresses.
However, to me, these seem merely the formalised statements of what teachers will have in their minds when developing their modules. I don’t think many teachers would start a module without some idea of what they want their students to get out of it or know/understand by the end of it. If these ideas are not considered straight-jackets, why are LOs?
There are also various ways in which the modules could be designed to achieve their LOs – the LOs do not prescribe the pedagogical methods as the Professor seems to suggest. There is room for flexibility and critique from the student too. Let’s take LO1 for example. This LO does not suggest that there is only one way for the student to achieve it – therefore, each student might have their own interpretations about the content covered in the module and so argue differently about the significance of the factors leading to the outbreak of the First World War. They will be identifying the significant factors (and so achieving the learning outcome) – yet they can also go beyond that to incorporate their own perspectives and analyses of the information and content they’ve studied. I cannot see why setting this LO would mean this engagement by students with the module/content is prohibited. I would suggest that LOs only become as restrictive to learning as the Professor suggests if teachers use them in restrictive ways, e.g. use them essentially as tick boxes for content to be covered. But I have yet to come across a teacher who would work with their students in this way. Further, I happen to know of colleagues who are developing LOs explicitly with their students – which the Professor suggests cannot and will not happen.
So overall, my opinion is that the Professor’s arguments do not stand up to detailed scrutiny. Yet I have to admit, I am secretly pleased when I come across extreme and evidence-less arguments like this because it gives me the chance to highlight the work of our project and show how our data is now illuminating the insufficiences within the apparent ‘knowledge-base’ about LOs in HE. It is time, though, to move beyond these types of extreme (and evidence-less) arguments and start engaging with what the research data is actually beginning to tell us, and only then can we begin to have more meaningful conversations about the topic of LOs.