Our love/hate relationship with learning outcomes

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Recently, I’ve been talking at conferences and campuses about intentional course design – the kind of course design that taps into our passions and reminds us why we love teaching.

Any good course design involves learning outcomes, and I have been compelled to ask the question, “how do learning outcomes make you feel?”

This question is usually met with laughter, as far too few few faculty get excited talking about learning outcomes, and instead, many resonate with the sense of being overwhelmed, de-motivated, or even being scolded for using the wrong verb.

I’ve written about this before and wanted to dig deeper into this dissatisfaction.

I’ve been collecting faculty reactions to the prompt,

“share one word that best describes your feeling about learning outcomes.”

Word cloud showing responses regarding how learning outcomes make us feel: controlled, ambivalent, contract, mechanical, to-do list, not-creative, mixed, intentional, focused, deliberate, alignment, measurable, accountability, limiting, inhibiting, overwhelmed, helpful, indispensable, in-control.

Responses from a recent conference ranged from “valuable” and “indispensable” to “mechanical” and “limiting.” Although faculty mostly appreciate how learning outcomes provide alignment, focus, and a sense of control, there were also many feelings that learning outcomes are not conducive to creativity or in some way inhibit spontaneous learning.

Perhaps the most honest response is “mixed.”

Learning outcomes are standard these days in college courses. They allow for clear alignment for both students and faculty, provide evidence for accountability concerns, and help us design courses that engage a wide range of learning approaches and dimensions. They help us know what students are meant to gain from a course and provide that sense of standardization across instructors and institutions.

I can’t imagine teaching a course without learning outcomes, and they are indispensable when changes or pivots are necessary – from a pandemic to when a student needs to miss a class or asks to submit an alternative assignment.

Yet, there is much dissatisfaction with learning outcomes. Why is this?

First, there is the tendency to assume that learning outcomes are completely objective and mean the same thing to everyone.

We have moved away from using the word “understand” because it’s too ambiguous, yet we happily use “identify” or “analyze” or “debate,” which are equally problematic terms.

How many courses have you seen that have the same outcomes but end up being very different in both how and what is taught?

I’ve seen heated arguments occur over the use of a specific verb. It’s exciting to get so passionate about our teaching, but perhaps we need to understand (couldn’t help it) that these verbs will mean different things to different people, and accept their use as a guiding path rather than an absolute direction.

Or, the dissatisfaction could reflect a potential overuse of learning outcomes.

We have been working hard to create alignment between the learning outcomes of our college all the way down to our lessons. It’s common now for every workshop and online module and even articles to have learning outcomes.

This as been valuable for design purposes, but has it reached a point where, similar to syllabus policies, we do not read or pay attention to the outcomes anymore? I’ll admit when I see “LO4,” “CO 6.3,” or other alignment notations in syllabi and course documents, I tend to zone out and feel like I’m being programed instead of being inspired to learn.

Akin to the negative effects of extrinsic motivation, all this careful planning may emit an unintentional message that the education we are about to experience is not one of our choosing. That it is something being done to us rather than something we want to do for ourselves for the sake of learning.

Similarly, instructors have expressed feeling limited by learning outcomes, that creativity is stifled if we have every moment planned and cannot follow students’ individual interests.

If you’ve taught for a while, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of a student asking a slightly off-topic question, or posing a suggestion on how to conduct an activity. Something that took you in a new direction yet ended up being a worthwhile use of time or benefitted students in an unexpected way.

Although careful course planning is ideal, we also need to leave room for those special “teachable moments.”

Accidental Learning?

I was struck by a comment from a recent conference participant, who said, “I’m torn. I like them [learning outcomes] because they keep the teaching focus. I worry they discourage accidental learning and exploration.”

Personally I love the complexity in the idea of “accidental” learning. There is so much to unpack in that one phrase.

And similarly, I am also torn. I will continue to use learning outcomes in my teaching, but will also try to keep them in their place as a guide rather than a directive, and aim to keep the focus on motivation and inspiration.