This week I’ve had three fairly lively discussions about learning outcomes in our university papers. (It’s well blogged already – e.g. here, but I’ll add some things to the mix). The concept is hardly new, but it is only just being given a really wide profile here at Waikato. Although many individual teachers, and many departments, have routinely written learning outcomes for their papers up to this point, it is now becoming mandatory. This is causing a bit of anxiety.

I honestly think that most of the adverse reaction is because it is seen as being another piece of administration work to do that has nothing to do with the task of actually teaching. In fact, it has everything to do with the task of teaching. Simply put, if you don’t know what the learning outcomes for your paper are, your teaching really has no purpose.

So, for you non-teachers out there, what am I talking about? A learning outcome for a course is a statement of what learning we want the students to have on going through this course, but given in such a way that it tells us how we would know (and the student would know) if the student has reached this learning. Biggs and Tang put it as "…a statement of how we would recognize if or how well students have learned what is intended they should learn." (Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university. Maidenhead, U.K.: Open University Press.)

This excludes words like ‘understand’ and ‘know’; they are too vague; my idea of understanding could be very different from a student’s. Instead, how would my students be able to demonstrate that understanding?

So, an example. I would like my students to understand ‘skin depth’. That’s not a good learning outcome – it doesn’t indicate how that understanding could be demonstrated – so I ask myself how my students could demonstrate that they understand. They could do that by calculating a value for skin depth for a particular situation and then interpreting what this means with regard to how far an electromagnetic wave will penetrate into a material. So I could write "A student (who successfully completes this paper) will be able to calculate a value for skin depth in different electromagnetic scenarios and discuss critically the significance of their result in terms of the penetration of electromagnetic radiation."

There is content in the learning outcome, but it isn’t a list of content (That would be something like… "a student will study….skin depth and penetration of electromagnetic radiation into matter.") Learning outcomes are suggestive of assessment tasks – they have to be – since learning needs to be demonstrated. So, for my example, I could assess my students’ ability to meet the learning outcome through having them do a calculation of skin depth, and asking them to comment on what their result implies.

Note that the assessment follows from the learning outcomes, not the other way around. That is, we don’t take the same old assessment that we’ve been using for the last ten years and just write some outcomes based on it. We write assessments based on what we want the students to learn (we all know students learn that which gets them through the assessments). I used to moan that my students didn’t want to learn physics, they just wanted to pass the exam. The solution was obvious (so obvious that it only took me a few years to grasp…) – if the exam assesses the physics I want students to learn, they will learn it. And probably enjoy it a whole lot more as well.