Alexandra MacFarlane – The journey to learning outcomes

It’s been a long road, but I have come to realize that learning outcomes have the power to transform higher education. As a student, I unknowingly used them to make important decisions, as an instructor they guided my teaching and as a course developer they have changed the way I look at higher education.

Like all students, I was always worried about getting a job. Why would somebody want to hire me? What skills did I have to offer? But after looking at the syllabus for my forensic entomology course (studying insects at crime scenes), I realized that not only did the learning outcomes describe my knowledge of insects but they also described the skills I had developed, such as effective communication, critical thinking and the ability to solve complex problems. I talked about these skills at my first job interview (and I got the job). Lesson 1: Learning outcomes allow students to clearly communicate to future employers the skills and knowledge they have developed.

After graduation, I began working as a part-time college instructor. I created activities, and designed tests and assignments that assessed their understanding of the learning outcomes. I taught a course about natural disasters that required students to “demonstrate their ability to compare preventative measures humans have implemented to reduce the impact of natural disasters.” In class, we compared preventative measures designed to save lives during an earthquake, whether it was public education, building design or warning systems. Lesson 2: Learning outcomes guide instruction.

A few years later, I began developing new courses and again encountered lessons in learning outcomes. While I was designing a new financial course for an office administration program, I realized that it’s one thing to outline what students need to know but it’s quite another to assess it. For example, students graduating from the office administration program must have the ability to manage petty cash. But it was only through simulations that test them on their ability to make change accurately and properly record transactions that I (and they) would know if they actually developed these workplace skills. Lesson 3: Assessment of the learning outcomes is fundamental to effective instruction.

I thought I was doing a pretty good job at teaching and assessing learning outcomes until I seriously took a look at the list of learning outcomes on my syllabus that described higher order cognitive skills and transferable skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication. I thought that I was teaching my students these skills but how could I be sure? I knew they were important but I didn’t know how to assess them. I’m still on the learning outcomes journey but now I explicitly discuss these skills in class and have students complete activities that allow them to reflect on their skill development, such as outlining the steps they took to solve a problem. Lesson 4: While discipline-specific content is important to teach and assess, so too are higher cognitive skills.

In my current role as a researcher at HEQCO and as I continue teaching, I know that my own journey is proof that learning outcomes have a valuable role to play in higher education. While we are pretty good at teaching and assessing discipline-specific learning outcomes, teaching and assessing higher cognitive skills remain a challenge. If you are up to the challenge you should register for HEQCO’s upcoming webinar series, Measuring Matters: Assessing learning outcomes in higher education. The first of the three-part, one-hour webinars is on March 30. It’s free so register now.

Alexandra MacFarlane is a researcher at HEQCO.

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