Somewhere between the audit culture and authentic planning: explorations of learning outcomes

This is another entry from the learning journal I am keeping alongside my ‘teaching’ of a module on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education.  It parallels the kind of ‘reflective learning‘ activity the lecturer/participants are asked to engage in.  I am using it to develop my own appreciation of this new field of practice for me (academic development) and to utilise the course to help me critically reflect on curriculum design – a kind of reflection-in and on-practice.  This entry examines the module focus on learning outcomes as a contribution to the lecturer/participants undertaking a module redesign exercise.

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes can often appear as managerial or administrative hurdles with little obvious relation to the ‘real’ job of teaching. Also, research suggests that within any one institution (or sub-unit within an institution) there can be varied approaches to an outcomes-based approach to learning and teaching. Although I am sensitive to the advantages of an outcomes approach to teaching and learning, I had not examined the learning outcomes of the courses I was co-ordinating, until now. It seems to me that an outcomes approach poses at least two key challenges for educators:

  • Are we teaching our discipline or our students?
  • Are we teaching for success or exclusion?

The first challenge refers to the tension that arises from the apprenticeship academics receive (usually the PhD) as part of their entry into academia. This is based on the discipline and subject knowledge, and specifically on research training in the discipline – not on teaching. So, we become a ‘sociologist’ or an ‘engineer’ rather than engender an approach to ‘sociological education’ or ‘engineering education’. It is no surprise then that we fall back on the ‘signature pedagogies’ we might have encountered that were teacher and content centred. We see ourselves as teaching the subject rather than educating students.

The second challenge is posed by John Biggs and his idea of ‘constructive alignment’. In his article ‘What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning’ he challenges higher education educators to face the exclusionary effect of habitual ways of teaching. Specifically he argues that much teaching assumes a student who has already mastered the threshold concepts and ways of practicing the discipline. Consequently, students who might still be operating in the liminal space of uncertainty can be ‘left behind’ or fail. Failure is then couched in terms of the student rather than teaching strategies. Biggs has proposed a particular planning technology to deal with some of these issues and to maximize the opportunity to design-in success and inclusion – constructive alignment. He asserts that by focusing on what we want students to come away with from the educative experience, rather than the subject matter we want to teach, we place learning at the centre of our activity. Furthermore, we need to plan for alignment between these outcomes and both the teaching activities and assessment methods.

Below I outline how I see the learning outcomes align with the teaching activities and assessment methods for CEL260:

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 17.43.36

For the most part there seems to be a reasonable alignment between the teaching activities and the learning outcomes. The learning outcomes and teaching activities suggest a process of learning that would cover a number of sessions and avoid too much precision. This both allows for more nuanced focus in each session, allowing for a degree of improvisation and possible collaboration over the exact content to be engaged with (participants may drive a focus on specific issues not planned for by me as the co-ordinator).

Being broad in this way the learning outcomes cannot clearly indicate the depth or breadth of learning aimed for. For instance, the first learning outcome does not specify exactly what is meant by ‘identify’. What depth of identification is required? What range of ‘key theories’ constitutes an adequate understanding? In particular, to what extent would participants be required to understand the range of debates around teaching and learning, such as those related to learning outcomes? This specificity is largely provided by the selection of resources and the particular methods of participation utilised. Even if I were to propose a more inquiry-based or collaborative approach to developing course content, it is likely that this would be restricted. The difference would lie in the value placed on different approaches rather than on the range of content dealt with.

There are likely, then, to be emergent learning outcomes that reflect the ‘corridor of tolerance’ available. That is learning outcomes will emerge as a consequence of mine and the participants’ interests at the time, as well as the energy levels that each might have at their disposal (Hussey & Smith 2008). However, the degree of ‘diversion’ from the syllabus will be limited since each session in the module is related to all others and provides a basis for the module in semester 2.

However, the degree of deviance may be fairly broad and open up some potential for more negotiation about the actual content of each session. The whole course was configured around some key concepts – paradigm shift from teacher to student centred learning; signature pedagogies; threshold concepts/deconstructing the discipline; deep/strategic/surface learning. In that sense the actual content or subject matter is less important. It is these central concepts that provide the basis for an integrative approach to the curriculum rather than content. Consequently, I disagree with Hussey and Smith’s suggestion that for a module learning outcomes do little more than provide a list of content. This disagreement might have something to do with the nature of the course. As an academic development programme the PgCert is not tied to subject matter in the same way that a more established discipline might be. The ‘signature’ of academic development work is given more by its pedagogy than by its content matter.

For the moment, then, I am happy enough with the learning outcomes as stated. This ‘happiness’ is based in part on the understanding that there will always be emergent learning outcomes that reflect something of the particular tone of the interactions that take place. These cannot be pre-planned. But, it does raise a question for me about the degree to which the content could be negotiated.

The diagram above does raise another issue for me though. This relates to the method of assessment.

As it is currently represented the use of the reflective learning journal might appear a rather blunt instrument for assessing the specified learning outcomes. This will be looked at again when I discuss ‘assessment’. For the moment I want to generate some questions:

  • How suitable are the learning outcomes when the method of assessment stresses higher order cognitive functions?
  • What might the relationship between learning outcomes and assessment look like when you take into account both the in-class assessment and the formative feedback provided over the duration of the module?
  • What balance between ‘academic rigour’ (perhaps suggested by the first learning outcome) and professional practice development should there be on such a course, and how could this be captured in the assessment method.

There is much more detail to the assessment method than articulated in the label ‘Reflective Learning Journal’. It certainly begs the question as to what kind of reflection is demanded and how this might relate to ideas of critical thinking.

John Biggs (2012) What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:1, 39-55

Kerry Dobbins, Sara Brooks, Jon J.A. Scott, Mark Rawlinson & Robert I. Norman (2014): Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: the academic’s perspective, Studies in Higher Education

Trevor Hussey & Patrick Smith (2003) The Uses of Learning Outcomes, Teaching in Higher Education, 8:3, 357-368

Trevor Hussey & Patrick Smith (2008) Learning outcomes: a conceptual analysis, Teaching in Higher Education, 13:1, 107-115

M.W. Jackson & M.T. Prosser (1989) Less lecturing, more learning, Studies in Higher Education, 14:1, 55-68


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