donderdag 21 mei 2015

Learning Outcomes? Nothing new is it?

"Learning Outcomes? Ah we have a new word for competencies again. Rephrase the old ones a bit. Lots of hassle for nothing new I guess?"

I agree changes in higher education often comes with a lot of paper work for educational engineers and often lacks a clear idea of added value or a real innovation. I would plea that this might be different with Learning Outcomes however. Let me lead you through some boring background and hopefully some more interesting examples.

In Europe it al started around 1999 with the so called Bologna Process, a large scale collaboration in the European Higher Education in order to make it more competitive and attractive. Of course collaboration, as good and as obvious it may sound, was and still is not so obvious at all. In Europe we adopted the more standardized international bachelor and master structure years ago but in such a diverse continent as Europe that doesn’t necessarily add up to comparability of schools across borders, let alone possible collaborations of schools across borders. Now that is exactly why the idea of Learning Outcomes came alive.
Instead of aims, objectives and competencies, a new, more measurable and comparable instrument had to be “invented”. 

Now lets have a closer look. As we can tell by the definitions we already see a certain difference between Learning Outcome and competence:

“A learning outcome is a measurable result of a learning experience which allows us to ascertain to which extent / level / standard a competence has been formed or enhanced.”

“A competence is a quality, ability, capacity or skill that is developed by and that belongs to the student.”

“Learning outcomes are not properties unique to each student, but statements which allow higher education institutions to measure whether students have developed their competences to the required level.”
From: A Tuning Guide to Formulating Degree Programme Profiles

Basically with Learning Outcomes we do not ask for specific ability, capacity or skill but what students can achieve with those abilities, capacities and skills.  And that is an important difference, as I will show you later.

In the meantime our university formally had to adopt Learning Outcomes even before anyone had the slightest idea of what they really were and how to implement them. And so a new “hassle” began, rephrasing existing competency profiles into Learning Outcomes (kind off).
In fact this also made it possible for me to develop an effective way to help schools improving their educational profiles and make their assessments much more transparent and effective.
Starting from the (usually ill formulated) Learning Outcome, which still had more of an objective or a competency I discovered that I only had to ask two main questions:
  1. “Why does a student need to know / be able to perform this?”
  2. “How can you see/perceive that the student really knows/is able to perform?”

One of my colleagues had some difficulty of translating one of his freshly formulated Learning Outcomes into an appropriate assessment. So we started with the Outcome: “The student is able to develop a cross-medial marketing concept”. But my sincere question: why a student should be able to master this apparently puzzled him giving the position of his eyebrows. Of course the answer was obvious…. to him: “in order to reach the largest number of  potential customers via different kinds of social media channels…”. Two things happened now. First of all the description of the program became more transparent for students. Not only what has to be learned but also why became much more clear. And secondly it gave a more precise direction to the development of the assessment. Indeed it makes a difference if a student is really “able to reach potential customers with a certain technique” or that the student “masters a certain technique” (without the ability to use it with success). The answer to the “How”-question now could be formulated much sharper: “Just show me that you are able to reach at least 3 potential customers from 3 different age-categories by making use of social media”

Second example, maybe even a bit more illustrative:
“The student knows the most important features of rural tourism”. This time I got even three interesting answers to my “Why”-question:  “In order to be able to pass the exam”, “otherwise the student has less chance to get a job” and “to be able to explain it to future customers”.
And yes, the first one is probably the most common one but you also may see the difference in how that could be assessed in comparison with the last one for example. So the “how” question revealed some distinctive possibilities: From “performing a written knowledge test” to an “assessment based on a role-play with observation”.

Ok, I have to admit that it still is a kind of a hassle as this process of defining, questioning and redefining is not only a matter of structure but also a matter of culture. I helped quite a few colleagues now and each and everyone told me that they really had to change their view on education. But also that it really made things better, more transparent and even easier!