Living with outcomes

Recently I was having a conversation with a small group of academics from different universities. One of them began to talk about course materials he was working on, and in particular about ‘learning outcomes’ he was having to identify as part of that; and so the conversation turned to the usefulness or otherwise of this way of looking at things. After a little while, the consensus amongst the group was that identifying ‘learning outcomes’ was essentially a bureaucratic exercise with no intrinsic pedagogical value.

So is that a fair comment? Well, I cannot really speak from experience, because I stopped being an active lecturer before learning outcomes emerged as a concept. The person who is often credited with this way of looking at education is the Australian sociologist William G. Spady. In 1995 he published a book entitled Outcome-Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers. Essentially his argument was that the success of education should be based on outputs rather than inputs, and he explained his concept as follows:

‘Outcome-Based Education means clearly focusing and organizing everything in an educational system around what is essential for all students to be able to do successfully at the end of their learning experiences. This means starting with a clear picture of what is important for students to be able to do, then organizing curriculum, instruction and assessment to make sure this learning ultimately happens.’

Therefore, rather than identifying the ingredients of a subject and arranging the syllabus in such a way as to communicate these, outcome-based learning asks what we want the student to know or be able to do, and works backwards from that. This, it is thought, makes learning more student focused and allows society’s expectations of learning to be factored into the design of the teaching.

There are also criticisms of this approach: that it standardises learning because the outcome does not derive from the needs or expectations of any actual student, but rather from what we want a hypothetical student to achieve; and because we cannot assume this hypothetical student to be all brilliant, learning outcomes identified may have to be quite modest. And if we need to tick too many outcomes boxes (if you will excuse the horrible cliché), some of these will be excessively vague and fuzzy.

So for example, I have been looking at random at ‘learning outcomes’ published by various universities for particular programmes, and they are full of things like this (all examples taken from actual materials): ‘the students will be able to synthesize knowledge’; or ‘the students will be able to apply knowledge and understanding and cognitive skills to the solution of problems’; or ‘students will be able to use strong communication and organizational skills’. Where the outcomes become more specific, they often switch to what are not really ‘outcomes’ at all, like: ‘at graduation, students will have covered literature (including genres and history), and language and linguistics’; the latter ‘outcomes’ are what the teacher will be teaching, i.e. these are inputs.

It seems to me that new ways of planning, executing and assessing learning are good, and looking at what we expect to emerge from the teaching and learning cannot be bad. But I am unconvinced that we always understand what the significance of learning outcomes might be, and in such cases the default position is to bureaucratise everything and simply turn it into a process that faculty must follow in order to satisfy formal requirements. But then again, maybe I am missing something.

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20 Comments on “Living with outcomes”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    As an economist I get excited at the prospect of a focus on outputs rather than inputs because, particularly for non-marketed services, there is often an assumption that the latter automatically corresponds to the former: “we have allocated an additional €20m on cancer services” whoop-di-do. The problem is that measuring outputs is really really hard so it may be inevitable that Spady’s idea, which seems pretty laudable, gets distorted.
    Moreover “what gets measured, gets done” so if I, as an academic, am assessed by how many theorems my students can recite in Sanskrit, then thats what I will focus on.

  2. Al Says:

    Well said.
    It does look fantastic when a matrix of learning outcomes are aligned from the module learning outcomes to the programme learning outcomes.

    But some of them are unrealistic, especially when referring to skills and skill development.
    The bureaucratic normalisation of standards tends to be fadish,…, what will be the next fad in education?

    By the end of this blog post, the reader will have
    -read my post
    -agreed with it
    -developed their skills of agreeing with Al
    -deepen their appreciation of Al

  3. copernicus Says:

    Again, I have to bash the post-92 universities. Learning outcomes there are sacrosanct, and plethora of meetings are held when a course and its modules are being revised, and I have often found myself on the wrong side of the majority who spend their time-days, craftic them.

    As I have been saying in the previous postings, the ” academic quality” department is the only growing department in these post-92 universities these days, and they along with with their czars in the departments keep an eagle eye on academics to ensure that they “behave” in respect of measuring the extent to which learning outcomes in modules are met.

    When the exam papers and coursework are set, the academics are pestered to show how their exam and coursework questions meet the learning outcomes, and the external examiner is sent a thick bundle of exam papers, marking schemes, coursework, and the grid of learning outcomes vs questions etc. etc… Almost always the external examiners ignored the learning outcome attachments. I as an external examiner for 15 years in various universities, I have always trusted the academics as professionals and ignored the dictates of these “academic quality” units.

    This was a trend started by educationists who ruined the secondary education, and this desease has gripped not only post-92s, some pre-92s as well and even has gripped the professional courses conducted by professional societies in engineering and computing.

    • Al Says:

      Speaking the truth.
      Often I ask myself if it is a lack of real life experience or earned intelligence that produces that dogmatic mindset.

    • Actually, I don’t think this is specific to the post-92 universities at all – in fact, some of the most egregious examples I have found of totally meaningless ‘outcomes’ are from global top 20 universities.

      • copernicus Says:


        I have to disagree with you having worked in 5 different universities in Britain- 3 post-92s and 2 Russell Group. I have the experience of educating my son and daughter at UCL and imperial. In these two, I have not come across the strong fervour of pushing learning outcomes. Also in the US, I have taken sabbaticals in 2 state universities and 2 Ivies, and in Spain, 2 state universities. Post-92s in Britain to me have developed the learning outcomes into a religion. If one tries to investigate in post-92s in Britain one sees the icy hands of a very expanded ” Academic Quality” unit in these unversities who deploy “quality Czars”. Please, could we revisit this again after you have spent a few months in RGU? You will be in for a shock. RGU is not alone, other 50+ post-92s practice this fundementalist religion!

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    @Ferdinand, ‘the default position is to bureaucratise everything and simply turn it into a process that faculty must follow in order to satisfy formal requirements. But then again, maybe I am missing something.’You are not missing anything, actually what you discuss in the post could also apply to the ‘identification of skills’ lists…I have nothing against lists, they can be rather useful, for shopping!

  5. Bettie Higgs Says:

    The discussion points are relevant, though it comes down to people using learning outcomes ‘wisely’. To do this takes time, and most people feel they are short of that. If a teacher feels they were not involved in the decision making, they are unlikely to take on board ‘new ways’ of doing things. I see both sides. Some groups report that the students focus only on the Learning Outcomes and ignore everything else.

    But at the end of the day learning outcomes can be very useful for students (who sometimes say I’m not sure what is wanted of me) if devised well.

  6. copernicus Says:

    The argument for embedding learning outcomes besides achievement of skills set, is to put forward a formal contract to the students who register for the module that they represent the expected achievement I through the achievement of skills set if you like).. In one post-92 university, this was challenged by a student who just passed the 1st module ( frist semester) which was a prerequisite for the the second module which he failed in the next semester. His claim was that he failed to achieve the necessary skill set in the first because of the poor teaching of the academic concerned as he was able to relate to only 2 of the 5 learning outcomes in the first module, the rest 3 were essential for the second module. What happened to the exam board decision then?

  7. Martin Says:

    I feel that ‘outcomes’ demonstrate a move away from learning for the sake of learning. The term ‘hypothetical student’ is important here. Even if learning outcomes are modest, they may still be far removed from the reality of many actual students. Artificial, hypothetical and hopeful boxing of outcomes is understandable on one level, but cannot be a solid overall solution to learning.

    By keeping outcomes vague or modest, the subjectivity in play causes problems for students, even though the method is supposed to be more student focused. Perhaps more specific outcomes could be outlined by institutions choosing to specialise within a limited area, as these could help prospective students choose a set of outcomes close to their own outlook, whilst also helping the institutions target those most likely to benefit from the outset.

    I’ve just been reading an essay by Lewis Elton (in the book “The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer”) who said the following about learning for the sake of learning:

    “…there is evidence that the excitement created by a ‘learning for learning’s sake’ motivates both teachers and students. Furthermore, although employers often expect students in their first employment to ‘hit the ground running’, different employers seem to have different understandings as to what that ground is and good employers provide targeted training for their employees.”

    There is also the issue of not all students learning for reasons of employment, which is perhaps more apparent amongst those students not taking a traditional after school route into HE. Expected outcomes must be rather different for those looking at enhancing career prospects compared to those with no such concern. That’s not to say the outcomes should necessarily be different, but I imagine there are a wide range of expectations in play at any one time.

    ‘Learning outcomes’ are not useless, but it’s difficult to define standard outcomes when student perceptions differ, especially within an increasingly diverse group of individuals.

  8. cormac Says:

    Judging by the LOs I have read for hundreds of courses in our college, they quickly simply became a new way of stating the sllabus.
    A less satisfactory replacement – vagaries such as you mention are the rule rather than the exception.
    A good idea that has become seriously misused

    • Al Says:

      Dont they state the outcomes of the syllabus, as opposed to the syllabus itself.

      The problem I see in them is that they are abused to make truth claims about the outcome of educational experience.

      While they are easily deliverable for knowledge transmission and the like, they become questionable when claims for abilities, skills and competencies are made.
      Could the worst LO’s survive the charge of sophistry?

      • copernicus Says:

        They become threatening when the “quality czars” use them to get at academics. As some one with a mathematical background, I find the deliverables-the learning outcomes needing setting of many parameters, which is not simply achievable. The QAA in Britain from where the educationists sprayed this virus, is set to close. But then the virus has caught on.

  9. copernicus Says:


    I am not sure which courses you saw. My knowledge of UCL is closer and they certainly are not as dognatic as any post-92s.

  10. Perry Share Says:

    We in the IoT sector have lived with LOs for many years. Basically put, it is a matter of sitting down as a teaching team and agreeing what you are about and reflecting on how you are going to achieve it.

    ‘What you are about’ can usually be divided up roughly into technical skills, desired attitudinal states, ethical mindsets, scope of specific knowledge, development of critical and self-organising categories &c.

    It should be no more or less, and should not be fetishised by either supporters or opponents. Last time our course team did it, it took an afternoon. Maybe that is because they are a team in the first place – highly individualistic academic practitioners may have a lot more difficulty getting their heads around the concept of being accountable to anybody🙂

    • copernicus Says:

      In Britain, the QAA, the quality assurance agency for higher education these days insists on learning outcomes, where as better RG universities show them for each module egged on by QAA , they are not religious in adhering to them as the post-92s do.

      • Sorry, Copernicus, but there is absolutely no evidence to back that assertion. From what I have seen it’s universal now, and I see no evidence that the attitude is different as between different types of university. The point of my post was to encourage people to think again about what this is supposed to achieve. I am not against using learning outcomes, but it needs to be done intelligently, and not as part of fulfilling a bureaucratic requirement.

    • Al Says:


      It is approaching sophistry to claim that one can have an outcome of “attitudinal states, ethical mindsets”.

      If that is the case, then, why do we have recidivist crime?

      What have you described is a team mission statement?

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