Rephrase, replace or remove

July 4, 2003

Patrick Smith questions the validity of learning outcomes and calls for a more student-sensitive assessment regime.

He crane-lifts what appears to be the body of a naked female from the pile hole. Onlookers catch their breath before suspecting that the well-endowed figure might not be human but rather a pneumatic relationship aid. The crane man misses the cries to halt, and overhauls. At which point, given the compression of air in the latex dummy, the viewers are aghast as the figure morphs gender in a disturbing, grotesque and challenging manner.

Yes, it's Tom Sharpe's Wilt, and that notorious validation visit to a Fenlands college by the Council for National Academic Awards.

Rarely are validation events as dramatic, but many retain a degree of the bizarre reminiscent of Sharpe. And that is where this story of learning outcomes begins, a long time ago in a university far away.

Writing learning outcomes for a series of foundation modules in philosophy, the tutor was reckless enough to frame one as follows: "On successful completion of this module the student will be able to appreciate some of the pleasure and intellectual excitement in philosophy."

It's all in the verb - that is what the experts on objectives, intentions and learning outcomes bang on about. Verbs must be operational, capable of independent verification through independent observation, and they must be measurable. Sadly, on this occasion, the tutor's intended outcome, laudable as it might be to others of a philosophical persuasion, was ruled out on every count. "To appreciate" was out; "pleasure" definitely verboten.

Kindly rephrase, replace or remove this outcome.

At this point the tutor, a reasonable man but not one to shove about, stuck his heels in and refused. "Recant I will not," quoth he. Fortunately, the chairman of the validation, also a reasonable and civilised person, recognised the threat of a dangerous impasse likely to derail the validation process. Everything was going ahead to a tight schedule and knocking back any of the modules would delay the start of the programme. So a deferment on this particular issue was proposed and the remainder of the validation went ahead.

But how to resolve this tricky little matter of the rogue learning outcome?

Now a third party entered the fray. She suggested getting the people at the Educational Methods Unit to intercede and negotiate a resolution. Oh boy! Yet another incidence of one of the perennials of the staff developer's existence: finding oneself the meat in someone else's burger.

At this point, as with many narratives, there are conflicting accounts. The tutor refers to the staff developer being sent to "sort me out". The developer, not wishing to lose contacts and friends in the university - after all they are her lifeblood - emphasises: "It was mainly a case of selecting an acceptable form of words." Not surprisingly, the programme leader's position was: "I have to staff this programme for October. It's April. Get on with it!"

The module documentation was thorough and, from the context it provided, the compromise that students should "demonstrate their appreciation and comprehension of philosophical concepts by employing them appropriately and accurately" was framed. Like the latex doll in the pile hole, however, the outcome left questions:

  • Why should students not, having acquired knowledge and skills in a subject, take pleasure, even delight, in exercising them?
  • How often are teachers, faced by students' questions and reactions, put in the position of having to decide whether or not to pursue a line whose relevance to the stated learning outcomes might be, at best, tangential?
  • If we are seeking to encourage students actively and enthusiastically to engage with the subject matter, in short to become self-motivated, how do we reconcile their interests with our needs to cover the material?

The thing with philosophers is that they are inclined to sink their teeth into a particular issue and refuse to let go. Having raised these questions, the intrepid pair - philosophy tutor and staff developer - were locked into a process of inquiry. They finally concluded that, as they currently stood, many learning outcomes better served the needs of administrative convenience than the practical realities of classrooms, and the learning needs and interests of students. The notion of carts before horses assumed prominence in their thinking.

"Let us be clear," they would say to doubting colleagues. "We are not junking learning outcomes where they can be framed precisely, but there is so much more that goes on in classrooms, so much that teachers use to advance and consolidate student learning in order to promote their development."

During their undergraduate experience, students move from a position of relative dependence on tutors to one of independence, and this is frequently reflected in the assessments required.

In their final year, students are required to complete large and independent pieces of work: final shows, productions, dissertations, major projects and so on. In producing these, students often develop fresh and original insights into the nature of their subjects and their own learning.

How far do learning outcomes and assessment regimes allow for these expressions of difference?

Reflective journals, progress files and portfolios have much to offer in terms of supporting individual learning and achievement. A more student-sensitive assessment regime might include a staged and judicious blending of formal assessment of pre-specified learning outcomes and opportunities for students to demonstrate their own emerging learning outcomes.

In a world that seeks the solace of certainty - believing that inflatable mannequins never pop out of holes and that words encapsulate absolutes - the notion that statements of intention and outcome are context-related and thus of limited validity is not likely to find a sympathetic ear. However, the unlikely and the bizarre can and do occur, and in many a classroom.

Patrick Smith is professor of learning and teaching at Buckingham Chilterns University.

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