It’s always a nice moment when you come across an article, conference paper, blog post, etc in which the author(s) expresses similar views on a topic to the ones that you’ve been stating for some time, particularly if those views are possibly not the most popular or common ones. It’s a nice moment because you feel a sense of vindication – a sense of ‘yes, someone else thinks this too so I am on the right track and should keep pursuing it’. I had this sense of vindication when I came across this blog post called ‘In defense of learning outcomes’ by Roopika Risam. I would say that many of my previous blogs posts have been, in essence, about defending learning outcomes and arguing that they can be (if not already) a meaningful approach to enhance and support student learning. What was particularly great about reading Roopika Risam’s blog post was that it seemed to sum up in a nutshell everything that I’ve been arguing – and her arguments are based on her own practical experiences with learning outcomes rather than abstract ideas or opinions.
Whilst I encourage readers to read her post in full, I want to here just pick out a few points that she makes that are particularly significant to me. In a previous blog post I stated that:
My aim within the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’ is not to present one view about learning outcomes (e.g. that they are either good or bad for student learning). Instead, it has always been to present and engage in all arguments and debates about learning outcomes and try to find a position within them from which I can authentically move the project forward.
This open stance has been integral to the success of the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’ so far. It would be dishonest of me to say, though, that it has not caused certain challenges or tensions to me, particularly at the start of the project. Let me try to explain – at the start of the project I was trying to find the particular position that I took towards learning outcomes. This was more of a challenge than it may seem because I could identify with and understand both sides of the arguments about learning outcomes that are commonly put forward. I sincerely believed that they could be a useful and enriching learning tool for students, but I could also understand the ambivalance of some academics towards learning outcomes and their concerns that these type of outcomes support a neoliberal agenda and reinforce instrumentality. To some extent I felt that, for a while, I was going backwards and forwards between the arguments. My previous blog posts will, I hope, show that I have resolved this tension and have found a position from which I can authentically argue for the potential of learning outcomes to support and enhance student learning. What particularly struck me when reading Roopika Risam’s blog post was that she offers a way of thinking about learning outcomes that I think would have helped me to resolve this tension earlier. Essentially, Risam differentiates between capitalised ‘Learning Outcomes’ and uncapitalised ‘learning outcomes’:
The learning outcomes I’m describing aren’t the capitalized “Learning Outcomes” of corporate eduspeak…We would do well to be suspicious of education pundits, standards-makers, and Orwellian-titled foundations claiming that Learning Outcomes are the solutions to the problems plaguing K-12 and liberal arts education alike…Learning Outcome solutionism has bred justifiable concern about the relationship between neo-liberalism and assessment. As such, the phrase “Learning Outcome” bears a whiff of instrumentality…
…Yet, the humble, uncapitalized “learning outcome” is a professor’s friend. If you prefer, think of them as course “goals” or “objectives.” These statements, articulated on a syllabus, provide important signposts for our students. They signal that we have thought through our commitment to our craft.
I like the differentiation that she illuminates here because it shows the different levels at which learning outcomes can operate and as such, allows us different concepts of learning outcomes that we can reject and/or critique, or embrace and integrate within our teaching practices. I agree that capitalised ‘Learning Outcomes’ deserve our caution and suspicion – I have commented in a previous blog post how the current neoliberal (economic) focus of HE reinforces performative learning outcomes. It is within the uncapitalised concept of ‘learning outcomes’ that the true potential lies for this approach to be both the professor and student’s friend. It is the uncapitalised ‘learning outcomes’ that I believe tutors can embrace to provide a framework that will support their teaching activities rather than straightjacket or constrain them. Many of my previous blog posts discuss in more detail how learning outcomes could be used in this way:
- ‘Learning outcomes’ as a tool for student and tutor reflection
- Ambiguity and complexity for students in HE: how learning outcomes can help
- Making learning outcomes really student-centred
- Making learning outcomes work for social responsibility and not neoliberalism
Ultimately, Roopika Risam’s differentiation and her arguments within the blog post support my view that, whether learning outcomes have originated for accountability reasons or have been ‘misappropriated’ (see Hussey and Smith, 2002, p.222) to support this agenda, academics have the agency to appropriate them back to support educational purposes: it all comes down to how tutors use (uncapitalised) learning outcomes within their actual practices. As Roopika states:
To identify outcomes that you, as a professor, have developed for your class – whether with the class or by yourself – is not to cede your soul to the corporate university but to give your students insight on your vision for the course and to welcome them into the classroom by empowering them to take charge of their learning.
For (uncapitalised) learning outcomes, Roopika highlights that the central focus is not neoliberal accountability but forging a student-tutor relationship that is based on both parties understanding where they are going on their shared learning journey:
What I am really making the case for here, in my paean to learning outcomes, is the transparency that must be at the heart of the contract between our students and ourselves. This is not the “contract” of the syllabus itself but the compact we forge with our students as we embark on a semester’s journey together.
My previous blog posts show that I believe that learning outcomes, as a learning approach, can offer more to students than just transparency about the learning that they will be doing. However, core to many of my discussions on this topic is that learning outcomes can provide a framework within, or a platform from, which students and tutors can more meaningfully engage with the learning experience in a collaborative way. I am very grateful to have come across Roopika Risam’s blog post to know that I am not alone in this way of thinking or in my defence of learning outcomes.