Learning outcomes have been a key part of my professional life in higher education for the past 25 years. I completed a degree in social work at McGill University way back in the 80’s and haven’t been a social worker for a very long time. While I still can remember some content I learned (remembering what I had for breakfast is enough of a challenge these days!), most enduring is the systems thinking approach I was exposed to in a number of courses and outside-of-class experiences, as well as the importance of compassion, community and the impact of individual and societal empowerment. These outcomes of my undergraduate experience – in other words the knowledge, skills and attitudes imparted – have been useful in almost every aspect of my life.
It took me many years to understand and intentionally use what I learned. It seems clear now that these outcomes were an implicit and intended part of my education; I can only imagine their impact had they been explicitly articulated and practiced during those formative years. Though I certainly needed to create my own meaning of my undergraduate experience, knowing and practicing what was intended would have furthered my ability to make sense of the many seemingly disparate learning experiences that were part of my postsecondary education.
For me, the current learning outcomes movement in Ontario is about trying to ensure that we are providing students with intentional opportunities to develop the enduring knowledge, skills and attitudes that are valued in our programs, institutions and disciplines. I hope that students leave with a set of capacities that will carry them through much of their lives, regardless of whether they use their learning in the specific contexts in which they were taught. And yet, I suspect if you were to ask most students what they think of program outcomes, you would get a lot of blank looks in response. Although understandable, this is also regrettable because generations of students are passing through our hallways as we work through the details of fully engaging with students around learning outcomes.
Admittedly, some pedagogical approaches for grounding learning outcomes are now well-established. For example, co-ops, research courses and community-engaged learning provide great opportunities for consolidating and reflecting on previous learning. Yet intentional opportunities for practice, feedback and meaning-making are not always fully integrated into the curriculum. And although many more approaches are being cultivated – for example, outcomes-based e-portfolios and capstone learning experiences – it is difficult to find well-established outcomes-based teaching and learning approaches embedded throughout many programs.
One emerging area of promise is co-curricular opportunities for students to integrate their own formal and informal learning. At Queen’s University, for example, pilot projects are emerging to provide all students with outcomes-based e-portfolios outside of formal programs and curriculum. This approach does not require formal program engagement and allows for all types of student experiences, academic and otherwise. It is likely to be adopted by many self-directed students and/or those preparing to enter the job market. But only in combination with a more curricular approach to aligning program outcomes within key learning experiences can we help ensure that the academic experience fosters confident, well-educated, reflective and articulate citizens, knowledge creators and knowledge users…our students.
Peter Wolf is the associate vice provost, teaching and learning, and director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University.
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