I have experienced three phases in the evolution of the learning outcomes concept.
Learning outcomes refers to what students should know and be able to do as a result of the education they get in their postsecondary programs.
The first phase of the learning outcomes concept was already underway when I started at HEQCO in 2010. At that time, the emphasis was on the articulation of the knowledge, but mostly the skills, students should acquire in their programs. A cottage industry of projects sprung up aimed at listing the skills students should develop in courses and programs, and mapping these skills to the curriculum. HEQCO contributed to this movement [see here], exercises which, at times, could appear tedious and resemble activities that appealed more to accountants and bean counters. But this phase was absolutely necessary and it got more interesting and real when it became clear that the generic (or soft or transferable) skills identified as critical were the same ones that employers valued most in their future hires.
The second evolutionary phase of the learning outcomes concept — the one we are in now — focuses on assessment; specifically, the evaluation of whether students are acquiring the skills identified as desired learning outcomes. Different methodologies have been proposed to measure these skills ranging from the development of rubrics to the use of standardized tests, such as the CLA+. Rightfully, there is debate over the reliability and validity of these measurement instruments, their utility and how they could be employed. Once again, HEQCO has contributed to this movement by sponsoring a multi-institution Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium to measure critical thinking and communication skills and initiating a large trial with 20 colleges and universities using the OECD-developed PIAAC test to measure the change in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills in postsecondary students from the time they start their postsecondary programs to the time they finish.
It’s too early to come to definitive conclusions about what this assessment phase will show. However, if one were to go strictly on the bulk of the emerging data, there is reason to be concerned as we are not seeing as much development of these essential attributes as we would like. The Wall Street Journal’s recent analysis of one such large trial is a good example.
The second phase of the learning outcomes concept is driving us inextricably to the third: specifically, how can we do a better job of teaching the skills identified as critical in Phase 1 and that we know how to measure from the work completed in Phase 2? This third phase might be the most exciting aspect of learning-outcomes work yet. It is certainly the most relevant and germane for educational institutions and educators. Troglodytes will suggest that skills such as critical thinking or teamwork cannot be taught. (For some of them, simple assertions that these skills are developed appears to be sufficient.) Surely, this cannot be right and as educators we are obliged to explore better ways of teaching things that we think are important. Will everyone reach the same level of proficiency? Of course not. But, with well-developed pedagogical techniques, coupled with good teachers and sufficient practice, almost anything can be better learned.
Meeting the third phase challenge requires a re-dedicated and invigorated commitment in our colleges and especially our universities to the educational component of their mandate and to the scholarship of teaching. In universities, this requires a rebalancing from the current emphasis on research to teaching. (A dean at one of Ontario’s more highly ranked universities told me recently that virtually every day there is a request to grant teaching release to a professor, yet no one has ever asked for release from research.) It also requires a serious commitment to evaluation of whether our teaching techniques — be they clickers, flipped classrooms, problem-based learning or experiential learning — are effective. This rebalancing is essential if students, the public and, indeed, Canada are to receive the most benefit from our massive investment in public education.
Thanks for reading.