Why are learning outcomes (often) so dreadful?

Learning outcomes have become the ‘go-to’ building blocks of curriculum design and no programme or module is likely to be validated in the UK and many other places globally without specifying them. But they are not universally popular and working with dozens of universities over the years I have seen some truly gruesome learning outcomes.

In earlier times (when I was a student half a century ago!) what students were to learn was presented in the form of reading list: we talked about ‘reading for a degree’. Later the term ‘syllabus’ began to be used widely, outlining what was to be taught followed by a Copernican shift which decentred the tutor from the centre of learning universe, placing students at the heart instead. This built particularly on the work of Mager (1962) and other ‘instructional designers’ on preparing instructional objectives in a very structured format. Through this, and the work of Biggs (1996) advocating constructive alignment, learning outcomes became the norm through which we describe what we want students know and can do.

Stefani (2009) proposes that meaningful learning outcomes should encompass ‘a wide range of student attributes and abilities both cognitive and affective’ (p42) but too often they are stultifyingly restrictive, and inflexible when situations and contexts change. Frequently for relatively small elements of the curriculum there are far too many prescribed learning outcomes, which are very poorly expressed in polysyllabic, Latinate language, often because formats are over-restricted by Professional, Subject and Regulatory Bodies and institutional regulations, which can hamper creative responses to curriculum design. So much sometimes that people reject the concept, altogether: “Why do we no need learning outcomes anyway because we know what we want to teach them”, argued one Russell Group Dean recently. Others suggest that we are aiming to reframe the ineffable, that is to articulate in a rigid format tacit issues which are hard to describe in a manageable format.

Phil Race (2018) would suggest that we need to go beyond learning outcomes and include in curriculum descriptors:

  • Learning incomes: all the things learners are bringing to the learning situation;
  • Emergent learning outcomes: those we didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) predict, which may surprise and astound us!
  • Intended learning outgoings: helping them link the intended learning outcomes to the wider world of future learning and employment.

One way to think about what learning outcomes could cover is to ask yourself ‘what your external peers would be shocked if they failed to see included in your programs?’ ‘What is going to be really useful to students while in the course of studying, and subsequently for employability and professional lives?’ and ‘What is going to be really useful to colleagues who teach them, by giving them confidence that they are working on the right lines?’

We are often urged to draft learning outcomes that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-constrained, but I don’t find this very useful, not least because I am not sure I can differentiate between Achievable and Realistic! So instead as my contribution to the debate, I propose putting the life-blood back into learning by using VASCULAR learning outcomes which are:

  • Verifiable: Can we tell when they’ve been achieved? And can students?
  • Action orientated: Do they lead to real and useful activity?
  • Singular: i.e. not portmanteau outcomes combining two or more into one, making it difficult to assess if differently achieved, but readily matchable to student work produced?
  • Constructively aligned? (so that there is clear alignment between aims (What do students need to be able to know and do?), what is taught/ learned, how these are assessed and evaluated);
  • Understandable, i.e. using language codes that are meaningful to all stakeholders?
  • Level-appropriate? Suitable and differentiable between 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year, Masters, other PG?
  • Affective-inclusive, i.e. not just covering actions but capabilities in the affective domain?
  • Regularly reviewed? Not just stuck in history, and always fit-for-purpose.

I would love to receive colleagues’ comments on these ideas!

References

Biggs, J. (1996) Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher education32(3), pp.347-364.

Mager, R. F. (1962) Preparing instructional objectives. Pao Alto, Calif, Fearon.

Race, P. (2018) https://phil-race.co.uk/2018/05/beyond-learning-outcomes/ (accessed March 2019)

Stefani, L. (2009) Curriculum Design and Development (in Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. eds., A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education, Enhancing academic practice, 3rd edition). London: Routledge.


Professor Sally Brown is Emerita Professor of Higher Education Diversity in Teaching and Learning at Leeds Metropolitan University and was until July 2010 PVC (Academic). She is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth and Adjunct Professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast and James Cook University (both in Queensland, Australia). Sally has worked in education for more than forty years and was, for five years, Director of Membership Services for the Institute for Learning and Teaching, prior to which she worked at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle for almost 20 years as a lecturer, educational developer and Head of Quality Enhancement.

She is a National Teaching Fellow and was awarded a £200,000 NTFS grant for three years to research Innovative Assessment at Master’s level. She is widely published, largely in the field of teaching, learning and assessment. Sally is an independent consultant and workshop facilitator who offers keynote addresses at conferences and events in the UK and internationally.

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6 thoughts on “Why are learning outcomes (often) so dreadful?

  1. Great post. Like the VASCULAR idea. I’ve always felt that the design of the curriculum is such a critical part of the learning experience since it sets out the things we want the students to be able to do (outcomes), how we will support their achievement of those things we want them to do (teaching approaches), and how we will judge whether they can do those things (assessment), hopefully in a constructively aligned way. However, the whole system falls down if the outcomes are poorly articulated. I believe more inclusive approaches to designing curricula are needed, where multiple stakeholders including academic teams, students and employers to name a few should be involved in the design of courses, including the learning outcomes. This way we have a much better chance of including the incomes, emergent outcomes and outgoings that you mention in the blog. This happens in pockets but it isn’t universal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My own experience is limited to ‘teaching’ at a tutor level, and in the area of Computer Science, but I always think in terms of “capabilities”, both as a student and as a tutor. What new capabilities do I, or the student, gain from the time spent? What can they do they couldn’t before? If I do a course on compiler design, I expect to come out the end with the ability to write a compiler, which can be demonstrated by designing and writing one. (of ‘toy’ complexity)

    If I’m tutoring a student in Introduction to Computing, the expectation was that by the end of the semester the student could operate the hardware and apps they would need, such as performing a basic statistical analysis with a spreadsheet – often from the starting state of never having used a desktop computer before. This approach sounds very similar to the VASCULAR system you outlined.

    However I’d also say that while that approach was vital at the tutorial level, I found I greatly benefited from being exposed to concepts and systems that were far beyond my level of capability. eg: The massive complexity of the GNU C compiler, or the design of Supercomputers. You could not hope to expect a student to build something of that scope, but being aware of them, and how the capabilities they were developing were the foundations of that kind of ‘blue sky’ work, was important. “One day…” you could mutter to yourself “I’ll be able to do that too. If I can get this damn code to compile.”

    While that kind of exposure was not directly useful for increasing capability, it was inspirational. It created the desire to become capable, the confidence it was possible, made the path forward seem clearer, and cemented why the capabilities being taught were important. But such topics are definitely not Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic or Time-constrained if the student wishes to independently pursue them further. They are often the work of entire careers! But I think it’s vital to occasionally overwhelm students with the majesty that awaits them on their journey, and introduce them to unsolved (and possibly unsolvable!) problems before retreating back into what’s going to be on the exam. So they can mutter “One day…”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yep, as a former Computer Science student the idea of ‘Being able to ‘… do something was a vague possibility rather than a certainty at the beginning of every new topic!! But the pursuit of knowledge and the ultimate buzz when you finally ‘get it’ is sometimes what it’s all about. Finding the right verbs to define learning outcomes can be a challenge for lecturers, especially for large groups where some students have very limited previous exposure to the topic and others have a lot. #lovelearning

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a Fantastic post which has inspired me to review my own learning outcomes or incomes in my classroom. As someone teaching/training students and staff, the applicability and transferability of building programmes for both sets of learners which uses VASCULAR learning outcomes have got me rushing to review all my current learning outcomes. After a recent discussion with a 3 year UG class who were getting to grips with learning research paradigms, the regularly reviewed and lifelong commitment to understanding your own ontological and epistemological position is hugely relevant!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Invigorating the curriculum with VASCULAR Learning Outcomes - Sally Brown Sally Brown

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