Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes
[Dis]engaging Students
in Higher Education
OISE – September 24, 2012
Nicola Simmons, Ph.D.
Department of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in Education, Brock University
[email protected]
Learning Outcomes
O Make the instructor’s implicit expectations explicit
O Clarify students’ responsibilities
O Align course outcomes, tasks, assessments
O “Facilitate credit transfers, admission to graduate
program, and accreditation of professional
programs” (Hubball, Gold, Mighty, &
Britnell, 2007, p. 93).
O Facilitate conversations at the
department level about what is
being taught and why
Learning Engagement?
O “When there is a high level of specification of learning
outcomes and a high level of alignment of goals,
assessment and criteria, students’ experience is
characterized by:
O Less coverage of the syllabus
O Experience of less and poorer quality feedback
O Less experience of ‘appropriate assessment’
O Less experience of ‘clear goals and standards’
O Less deep approach” (Gibbs, 2010)
Or Disengagement?
O Caine and Caine (1998) suggest that “prespecified
‘correct’ outcomes [that] have been established by an
external agent” (p. 5) is one of a set of five conditions
that result in cognitive downshifting, in which students
disengage from the learning process and curriculum.
O Outcomes-based education can run the risk of
emphasizing the accumulation of discrete items of
content rather than the meta-cognitive and
transdisciplinary thinking and problem-solving required
of current and future graduates.
Some Challenges
O Often focus on content and assessment not process of learning
O Focus on competencies rather than competence (Sadler, 2007);
may lead to standardized testing
May be more meaningful to instructor than students
Challenging for most faculty to write (Rust, Price, & O’Donavan,
2003); particularly for the affective domain.
Behavioural engagement is easier to see than cognitive and
psychological engagement
An instrumental process, or what Schön (1983) refers to as a
techno-rational perspective, rather than a negotiated process
that could lead to transformative learning
Little room for discovery; may reduce learning from an aesthetic
experience to one that is so constrained as to be anaesthetic
(Robinson, 2010)
Quality Improvement Efforts
“Tend to be compromised to some extent by quality
seen as an aspect of accountability or of standardsetting. Increasingly, internal quality management is
complemented by external quality-assurance
mechanisms, complete with quantifiable indicators,
that reflect a considerable loss of public trust in
education” (Kehm, 2010, p. 42).
Which then leads to more accountability measures…
Quality Improvement Efforts
“Quality assurance and enhancement are based in
quality paradigms that are philosophically opposed.
Since accountability is the main driving force behind
quality assurance in higher education, the primary
goals of quality assurance processes are to monitor
and maintain quality. As a result, quality assurance
processes tend to inhibit innovation in teaching and
learning rather than advance it” (Nicholson, 2011, p. 8).
Pedagogical Processes
O “Wide assumption that systemic course design is ‘a good
thing’; Oxford does not use anything resembling
systematic course design …. What is salient is the
process, and its rationale, not the goals” (Gibbs, 2010)
O Over two thirds of exemplary teachers in one study made
changes in their teaching while it was in progress, taking
advantage of teachable moments rather than remaining
within the confines of their plans for content delivery
(McAlpine & colleagues, as cited in Entwistle, Skinner, Entwistle, & Orr,
O This kind of reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983) places an
emphasis strongly on the process of learning rather than
Student Driven Approaches
O “Involving students in the design of assessment,
choice of assessment task and negotiation of
criteria” (Gibbs, 1992, p. 7) can result in higher levels of
student engagement.
O Outcomes should be written in terms of personal
understanding (from Biggs, 1999) rather than target
understanding (Entwistle & Smith, cited in Entwistle, 2000).
Learning without Outcomes?
O “Learners were allowed to identify, seek, and master
knowledge that was personally relevant instead of simply
having to receive pre-determined curricular information ....
As a result new learning was practically applicable”
(participant quote, Simmons, 2011).
O “I was able to see the value once I moved beyond the
frozen fear of uncertainty to ask myself “What did I want to
gain from this course? How did I learn when pushed out of
my comfort zone?” I had to be transformed into a student
who was open to this new concept and new territory for
learning …. [where] mistakes … would not be judged but
instead used as stepping stones toward learning”
(participant quote, Simmons, 2011).
Discussion Questions
O How can the commodification of education and
accompanying specification of discrete chunks to be
learned prepare students for the complex (and
transdisciplinary) challenges of today’s society?
O Whose agenda is privileged by outcomes?
O “If learning outcomes are so practical and useful, why
is there this resistance?” (Hussey & Smith, 2002, p. 224).
Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1998, May). Building a bridge between the neurosciences and
education: Cautions and possibilities. Bulletin, 1-8.
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frameworks and educational contexts. Paper presented at TLRP conference, Leicester, UK,
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teaching’: An integration of contrasting research areas. Higher Education Research &
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Gibbs, G. (2010). The importance of context in understanding teaching and learning:
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Scholarship in Teaching and Learning annual conference, Birmingham, UK, October.
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integrated framework. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 112, 93-105.
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Education, 3(3), 220-233.
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magazine of higher education, 42(3), 40-46.
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Available online at
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