Learning Outcomes: slaying the myths

Learning Outcomes: Slaying the Myths
by Robert F. Clift, Executive Director
Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC
March 25, 2013

Learning outcomes have gained considerable currency in the world of post-secondary education of late. If you were to listen to the higher-education policy entrepreneurs, you would think they had discovered the Holy Grail.  However, learning outcomes, in various forms, have been around for 95 years — hardly new. Nor have there been any major theoretical or practical innovations recently to breathe new life into the concept. To understand why learning outcomes are currently in vogue, it is first useful to slay a few myths.

Myth – The BC Government will require all public post-secondary institutions to adopt learning outcomes as a form of educational quality control.

The Ministry of Advanced Education is in an ongoing discussion with post-secondary system stakeholders about how best to ensure BC post-secondary institutions are delivering high-quality programs. At the beginning of this process in early 2012, there was discussion about requiring learning outcomes from all institutions. In the latest discussion paper issued on March 4, 2013, this idea has been dropped completely in favour of institutions demonstrating the effectiveness of their particular model of educational quality control.

Myth – All the BC research universities are implementing university-wide learning outcomes.

Although there are programs to assist faculty members in designing learning outcomes at all the research universities, and some departments have adopted a learning outcomes approach, there is no university-wide effort at any BC research university to adopt a learning outcomes approach to educational quality control, other than at SFU.

Myth – Learning outcomes will improve educational quality in all fields of study.

Learning outcomes are best suited to fields of study where there are concrete and discrete units of knowledge. In particular, those fields where a student must master certain competencies as a prerequisite for success in subsequent learning. In those fields that require creativity, synthesis and holistic thinking, relying on learning outcomes is more likely to impede learning.

Myth – The Ontario government is requiring all public post-secondary institutions to adopt a learning outcomes approach to educational quality control.

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), an arm’s length government agency, is working on three research projects relating to learning outcomes. However, there is no provincial mandate for learning outcomes.

Myth – There is a world-wide trend towards educators employing learning outcomes in post-secondary education.

There is certainly a push from various governments around the world for learning outcomes and an extensive Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) project on assessing the learning outcomes of higher education. These initiatives are, for the most part, driven by governmental and institutional demands for accountability and not by front-line educators.

So, if none of these myths is true, why does there seem to be an urgency on the part of some Canadian institutional managers to implement learning outcome models?

At its root, the push for learning outcomes is the latest manifestation of the trend in higher education to replace professional autonomy with command and control management. Incremental changes in how our institutions operate have been shifting power out of the hands of faculty members and into the hands of managers and politicians for the better part of two decades.

Reducing the educational experience to discrete outcomes serves a multitude of purposes, few of them of any real benefit to students.

Focusing on learning outcomes, rather than learning intentions, flips the responsibility for learning from the student to the instructor. If a student fails to achieve a learning outcome, then either the instructor didn’t teach the material very well or didn’t motivate the student enough to learn. The proposition that learning outcomes are “student centered” is true to the extent it focuses on student achievement, but it does so at the price of treating the student as product running through an assembly line rather than an individual with personal agency. Although instructors may intend for their students to achieve certain outcomes, if the student doesn’t have the same intentions then no form of quality control is going to change that.

Through this flipping of responsibilities, it’s a short step to institutional managers using students’ lack of success in achieving learning outcomes as a means of faculty evaluation. Tenure, promotion and merit assessments will be influenced by the proportion of students who achieved all the designated learning outcomes in your classes because it is easier than making an authentic assessment of both a faculty member’s teaching and a student’s learning. Learning often goes in very different directions from the stated learning outcomes, but is still valuable to the students. A learning outcomes approach cannot capture this fluidity.

Aggregated to an institutional level, the proportion of students achieving learning outcomes becomes a key performance indicator that politicians will eagerly use to advance their own agendas. In particular, they will use it to ration funding to institutions using the learning outcomes performance indicator as an “objective” way of dividing the funding pie.

Politicians may also latch on to learning objectives as a cost-saving tool. If a student merely needs to demonstrate they have achieved the learning objectives to receive credit, then why can’t they achieve that learning objective through a massive online open course (MOOC), or through a private college, or through personal study?  Why do they need to attend class? When the learning content is divorced from the context and process, it’s an easy step – and for the politicians, a significant cost-saving step – from credit-based degrees to learning-outcome-based degrees (see note below). You no longer need teachers, just assessors who can confirm students have achieved the requisite learning objective.

We’ve been down this road before with key performance indicators. Institutional managers and governments continue to look for silver bullets where none exist.

Learning objectives are but one tool in the educational quality control toolbox. Used for their intended purpose, in appropriate contexts, they are a powerful tool. Applied universally to all fields of study in a university, they are ineffective or, worse yet, may undermine the very educational quality they are intended to protect.


Note: On March 19th, the US Department of Education released a letter encouraging interested post-secondary institutions to submit proposals for competency-based degrees. Details about this initiative are available at: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/03/19/feds-give-nudge-competency-based-education.