Learning outcomes – love them or hate them?

I went to an excellent meeting yesterday, the next step in bringing ‘joined-up thinking’ to assessment in modules in our Physics and Astronomy and Planetary Sciences pathways. There are issues, not least that some of the modules are also used by other qualifications/pathways – and we don’t own all of them. But, as at the Faculty Assessment Day in October, it was lovely to be able to spend several hours discussing teaching with a room-full of colleagues, and indeed the debate continued onto the bus to Milton Keynes Station at the end of the day!

The debate hinged around the use of learning outcomes. The idea is that we might have an overarching set of LOs for each pathway and then use a subset of these for each of the constituent modules. That much was reasonably uncontentious and the group I was part of were able fairly easily to find a way of making it work for key skills; it’s more tricky for knowledge and understanding LOs (especially since we are constrained by a long list of content imposed by the Instiute of Physics).

Later in the afternoon, we were set the task of establishing whether it would be possible to adapt our existing tutor-marked assignments and marking guidelines to explicitly assess against learning outcomes (identifying whether a particular learning outcome is well demonstrated etc.). Practice is currently frighteningly varied. I don’t really want to fall out with my colleagues by imposing a particular style of marking and we agreed that trying to ‘retro-fit’ existing assignments is probably not the way forward. However I was surprised by the strength of feeling in the room – some people really hate learning outcomes; some people only want to ‘teach the physics’.

A colleague pointed me in the direction of a similarly heated debate that is taking place on the THE website. I had heard rumourings that learning outcomes were going out of fashion, but this is something else. It really saddens me to hear people talking about plagiarising others’ learning outcomes and writing them as a paper exercise, done to please the bean counters.

My view: I was ‘converted’ to the learning outcomes approach some years ago. I have seen LOs used effectively in explicitly identifying to ourselves and our students what it is that we are teaching and assessing, and in measuring the progress of individual students and giving meaningful feedback. Where we are using learning outcomes in our teaching and assessment, I think we should be as consistent as possible, especially in our terminology. However, I don’t want to be part of a move that uses learning outcomes to obscure what is really going on, or to create additional barriers to students’ understanding. ‘You made a mistake with such and such’ is probably more helpful than ‘Kn2 was NQD’. Can we ever reach a sensible compromise? Dunno.

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One Response to Learning outcomes – love them or hate them?

  1. Pingback: e-assessment (f)or learning » Blog Archive » Think before you assess

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