I’ve fallen rather behind on my ULTA2 tasks, and am using the Easter lull to catch up. The first task of the second module (‘Developing your Practice’) is on learning outcomes. We were asked to read two papers and post our reflections in 200 words. A longer version of my response is reproduced below.
- Allan, J., 1996. Learning Outcomes in Higher Education. Studies in Higher Education. 21(1), p93-108.
- Hussey, T., & Smith, P., 2003. The Uses of Learning Outcomes. Teaching in Higher Education. 8(3), p.357-368.
I found the Allan paper helpful in providing a historical overview of the development of learning outcomes (LOs) and the different ways in which they have been used. The main impression for me was that the terminology here is very confused! Allan draws a useful distinction between teaching and learning objectives – the former are what the teacher aims to do (‘explain x’) while the latter are what a successful learner should be able to do at the end of the programme of study. One might object however that the teaching objectives should simply just be to help students achieve the learning objectives, and so the distinction falls away.
Hussey and Smith’s main claim is that LOs should be framed so that they are more flexible and general to allow for the fact that learning will be different for different groups and in different contexts. This is to prevent the opportunity for ‘learning moments’ – unpredictable but beneficial discussion and learning that can occur when students are given some freedom to explore the things that they are interested in – to be lost because of a desire to (a) have LOs that are measurable and therefore teaching that can be evaluated; and (b) avoid unpredictable and undesirable departures from planned LOs. Hussey and Smith criticise current use of LOs but they don’t give examples so it is difficult to assess their claims on this. They recommend the use of broader LOs but again don’t give examples so it is hard to apply their recommendations practically.
Their claim on pp. 357-8 that there is a tension between sticking to learning outcomes and allowing flexibility and freedom in group discussion assumes that learning outcomes are content-oriented. If learning outcomes are more skills-based (i.e. critical engagement, analysis, reasoning, argumentation), which is the case in my discipline of philosophy, then there is less of a tension here. ‘Syllabus’ and ‘learning outcomes’ are used interchangeably which I’m not sure is quite right.