How do learning outcomes make you feel?

young ethnic male with laptop screaming

How do you feel when it’s time to talk about or write your course learning outcomes?

Do you feel excited? Energized and ready to pull out a list of measurable learning outcome verbs?

Or, do you take a deep sigh. Do you feel overwhelmed? Wanting someone else to do it?

Or, do you get yourself ready to be scolded for wanting students to “understand” something, feeling shamed for using the wrong verb?

This post is not meant to dismiss the idea of good learning outcomes. Course learning outcomes are absolutely essential in today’s education world. It’s almost unimaginable to think of teaching a course without them.

Learning outcomes provide our guiding north star for determining what to include and have students do. They help students know if they want to take a course in the first place. And they help us develop thoughtful programs where courses are strategically aligned with other courses and with the overall goals of a higher education degree.

But at the same time, in my 20+ years of working with faculty, I’ve seen too many eye rolls and deflated shoulders when we start talking about measurable, specific, SMART outcomes.

Can our course outcomes be exciting and inspiring?
I want to talk about those learning outcomes that bring forth goose bumps.

To get to those truly meaningful learning outcomes that remind us why we love teaching, we need to start with the big picture goals of what we are doing. We need to first focus our thinking beyond the content and skills of our course.

Let’s explore one of the first steps in Dee Fink’s Integrated Course Design process – “the Big Dream.”

In this process, we take a moment to visualize the PERFECT learning situation. It goes something like this…

Imagine that by some magic or divine intervention, next term you discover that you have been given a perfect class. Your students are able and willing to do everything you ask and learn anything you require of them. All of your students are prepared, eager, and motivated to learn. They eagerly crave your feedback to improve their thinking and skills. You even have the perfect time slot to teach your class and technology (or parking) is not an issue!

Go ahead, close your eyes and imagine!

When you think about the perfect situation and set of students, you not get bogged down in worry about what our students can’t do, but rather, what is possible.

Once you have that mindset of possibility rather than constraint, think about your students 5 years in the future.
What would be the impact on their life as a result of taking your course? What do you most want, hope, and dream for them?

Some favorite responses to this exercise include:

“I want students to know they can do math.” 

“I hope my students continually question the injustices in the world and work towards creating a better society.”

“I want students to see how science concepts help them understand their everyday world.”

I hope to empower students to be able to analyze the validity of information, and use it wisely in the construction of knowledge.” 

Ok you say…dreaming is great, but I still have to cover my content

Does this dreaming matter? Is this just an extra step that gets our hopes up unnecessarily?

I think this dreaming step does matter. I’ve seen faculty design courses differently when they have this dream in mind.

Think about it. If you were to truly design a course around a dream that students “know they can do math”, what might you do differently? What would you build into the design? Or take out?

Perhaps you would:

  • Add some quick wins at the beginning to build confidence
  • Create a pre-assessment to see where students have gaps and provide resources
  • Include ongoing self-assessments so that students can determine their own growth as well as specific areas for practice
  • Take out some unnecessary stress-inducing assessments or switch to more equity-based grading practices
  • Hold discussions or reflection activities for students to articulate their (hopefully changing) feelings towards math
  • Use application activities that demonstrate how math is used in different careers

Once we have a big picture goal, it’s easier to design those specific, measurable learning outcomes that help get us towards that goal. Resources such as Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning and the many online verb lists can be helpful in crafting our course.

Will all of our students achieve these outcomes – likely not. But we can design a course where most students are more likely to end up with those long-term, meaningful aspects.

Many of our biggest dreams go well beyond one course and we don’t get to see the long-term impact on our students. But if we view our course as part of that big dream, we can make small gains and, I dream, make a difference in the lives of our students.

How do your learning outcomes make you feel?