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.