Immeasurable outcomes (1 of 2)

December 13, 2012

While Frank Furedi outlines four compelling arguments against the use of learning outcomes in higher education ("The unhappiness principle", 29 November), it seems to me that another should be included: namely, that they are numerically illiterate and hence useless. Unless there is only one learning outcome (eg, can the student build a 12ft wall, 4ft high, that is straight, does not fall over and is properly pointed?), the only time that a set of learning outcomes accurately conveys meaning is when the student has obtained either 0 or 100 per cent. Everything else is open to interpretation and conjecture.

For example, does a mark of 50 per cent mean that a student has fulfilled/acquired only half of each learning outcome, fully fulfilled half of them, or (more likely) something in between? How do you compare students? How can one attribute any sensible meaning to such programmes?

Given the specious "accuracy" of learning outcomes, it seems much more sensible to indicate the learning inputs and activities that can be as prescriptive or as general as required, and over which we do have control and are therefore more accurate. This would still allow students to select courses based on their content.

Learning outcomes can also have a deleterious impact on the curriculum. For example, the learning-outcomes police are reluctant to allow option modules where students can opt in to, say, four courses from a larger selection because of the apparent problems of writing the resulting learning outcomes. How this is different from courses/modules where students can answer less than the total number of examination questions has never been satisfactorily explained.

Therefore, while I am happy that we should declare module/course/programme content, the imposition of learning outcomes, with all the associated "approved" phrases and centralised bureaucracy involved, does not seem to me to generate any meaningful information and, as Furedi points out, has many negative effects on learning and education.

Nigel Young, Department of chemistry, University of Hull

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