Design Learning Outcomes to Change the World

We in higher education do a poor job helping students translate the specific content or knowledge gained in our classrooms into a tool that will help them thrive in life, writes Cathy N. Davidson.

August 28, 2017
 
 
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Just the other day, a friend of mine, a superb cultural anthropology professor, was railing against her university’s imposition of a requirement that every faculty member provide “learning outcomes” for their courses. It was the end of the semester, and she’d worked hard to provide a meaningful class for her students, and it felt cynical to then tack on a bunch of meaningless outcomes.  Who hasn’t felt anger at this increasingly frequent, seemingly cynical tendency of institutions to reduce the complexity of learning to a metric, productivity and outcomes? 

That was certainly my response when, some years ago now, my own institution debated requiring faculty members to include such outcomes on their syllabus. I protested. Then I happened to be keynoting a conference that included a workshop for beginning faculty members, intended to help them design a syllabus, including identifying meaningful learning outcomes. I asked if I, a senior faculty member, could attend.

One of the young professors leading the workshop read out loud from a student course evaluation where the student noted that, until her professor had included learning outcomes on a syllabus, she had no idea why she was taking a given class or why her university thought this course (but not some other) should be required for general education distribution or for a major. She compared college to a child asking “Why?” and the parent responding, “Because I told you so.”

You don’t need to go very deep in the pedagogical research to know that the key to successful learning is for the learner to be aware of what the given knowledge will add to their goals and their life.  As professors, departments and institutions, we tend to do a poor job connecting the lofty language of our “mission statements” to our actual practices: what we require, how we organize knowledge, how we facilitate learning and what we hope our students will gain from what they learn-- not just as job preparation (a shortsighted goal in a changing world) but also as preparation for a complex world where nothing is stable. We do a poor job helping students translate the specific content or knowledge gained in our classrooms into a tool (informational, conceptual, methodological, epistemological or affective) that will help them thrive in life. If higher education doesn’t do that -- if it isn’t geared to helping students succeed beyond the final exam and after graduation -- then why bother?

That workshop for beginning instructors helped me understand how I could turn learning outcomes from a cynical exercise into a key component of institutional change, starting in the realm over which I and other faculty members have control: how we run our classrooms. Borrowing from the long tradition of progressive education that extends from John Dewey and Paulo Freire to bell hooks and Carol Dweck, I challenge my students to take the lead in their learning. In the case of learning outcomes, I now often leave that section blank on the syllabus and use part of the first or second class meeting to have students challenge themselves, thinking up the most aspirational, world-changing outcomes they can imagine.

I do this with a simple, traditional think-pair-share exercise. First, I ask students to take 90 seconds to jot out responses to an open-ended question: “What are the three most important things you hope to take away from this class and into the rest of your life?” That’s the “think” part of the exercise. I then give them another 90 seconds to turn to “pair” with the student nearest them, introduce themselves, and take turns, with one person reading her three things and the other listening. This allows everyone a chance to express an original opinion without interruption or critique.

Once they have heard one another, I ask them to then work together to choose or craft one item that they will “share” with the class. In a small group, I have them read those out loud.  In a large one, they might add them to a Google Doc. I once did a Think-Pair-Share with 6,000 international teachers in the Philadelphia ‘76ers arena.  I try to do one TPS (as it’s known in the pedagogy business) every class period in every class.

It is my conviction that we need thoughtful, active collective engagement and participation -- by both students and faculty members -- to transform not just our classrooms but all of higher education.  We don’t need more edicts from on high or technocratic solutions, but we desperately need engaged, participatory rethinking about what we really want for and from our students -- and for and from ourselves and our institutions.

Aspirational Learning Outcomes

Here are 10 of my favorite learning outcomes, including some used by various other students and colleagues over the last several years. 

 “In this course I hope that we will  . . . “

  1. Learn to respect intellectual life and education as a precious gift that no one can steal from us.

  2. Be challenged by a scholar who maintains the highest standards of her profession to succeed educationally to our own highest standards in college and beyond.

  3. Learn to absorb and transfer knowledge and wisdom from lectures, readings and class discussion into own cogent thinking and writing.

  4. Form an appreciation of the importance of critical and creative thinking and problem-solving and use these to guide my future life and work.

  5. Gain the highest respect for intellectual rigor, including self-respect.

  6. Fight for the dignity and justice of all peoples, regardless of race, religion, national background, gender, ability or sexuality. We’re all learning together.

  7. Come to understand how everyday incidents -- the small victories as well as the constant abrasions of life and politics -- are grounded in histories and cultural practices, including those of racism or other inherited and structural forms of discrimination that are sometimes invisible to those who perpetuate them.

  8. Become a lifelong advocate for public higher education that can change lives and improve society.

  9. Learn to masterfully control chaos whenever we are faced with a complex web of ideas and results.

  10. Stay alert to surprise. Many times -- in class and out -- the best learning outcomes are the ones we never expected.

What are your aspirations for learning, in the classroom and out?  What’s missing here? If you are inclined, I hope you will use the “Comments” section below to add your own aspirations for learning.  Everybody learns when everybody is learning.

 

Bio

Cathy N. Davidson directs the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University To Prepare Students for a World in Flux being publish next month by Basic Books.

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