Saturday, May 16, 2015

Learning Outcomes and Backward Design

 A few weeks ago, my department chair sent an email to the faculty list-serv with the news that UT Austin had once again failed to pass its SACS Accreditation.  The problem, it seems, hinged on the failure of departments/colleges to define and measure learning outcomes in a way that was acceptable to SACS..  The chair expressed her view that this was a nonsensical process, anticipating the general moaning and groaning that was sure to emerge from faculty who believe that things like learning outcomes are silly.   At the start of the academic year, our CTL had sent around a very helpful sample syllabus, with the various UT policies included as well as things like a place for the instructor to list the course's learning outcomes.  Two senior colleagues ridiculed this document as useless and stupid--after all, they have been teaching for decades and don't need such guidelines.  Sadly, I'm fairly certain that if they were asked to define the learning outcomes for their course and explain how their course was going to support students in achieving those outcomes, neither colleague would be able to do so. 

Writing learning outcomes is very difficult for faculty who were never trained to think about their teaching in such terms.  We are great at describing what content our course will cover; we are pretty good at knowing that we expect our students to master a certain amount of content or skill set by the end of the semester.  We are terrible at framing our expectations for student learning in terms of learning outcomes, with all of our learning activities in the course aligned to those learning outcomes.  We are even worse at measuring learning outcomes.  We conflate grades with learning outcomes on the regular.

Every professor will tell you that students learned in their course--they will insist on it, despite never having measured how much students knew at the start or measuring their knowledge using a standardized instrument rather than an instructor-written exam.  In fact, we generally have no real way of measuring what they did or didn't learn, and how well.  This is especially true for one-off courses, like the lower division general education courses many of us teach.  So a student of mine doesn't really know anything about Roman culture or history at the end of the semester...  This is likely to have little impact on their educational career unless they decide to be a Classics major.

To my mind, one of the great boons of digitizing our teaching is precisely that it requires faculty to finally learn about things like learning outcomes and backwards design.  These are not difficult concepts but they require some intentionality--and sometimes some assistance--to implement.  The activity of building a hybrid or online class encourages faculty to think hard about how all the pieces contribute to student learning.  The existence of the course on a digital platform means that the experience of taking or teaching a course is now preserved as an artifact that can be examined by a third party.  It is no longer an ephemeral experience in which we depend on the reports of instructors and their students to evaluate teaching efficacy.

I worry about "Big Data" intruding on academic freedom, both in terms of what we teach and how we teach.  Will we all be forced to teach in 3-5 minute blocks because someone decided that this was the average attention span?  At present, online courses are closely scrutinized and monitored by our campus administrators.  To what extent will this monitoring expand as our ability conduct this monitoring with computers grows?  Currently, we are required by law to post our course syllabus.  At what point will we be required to use the Campus LMS for all graded activities, so that student data can be captured more easily?  I suspect that the refusal of most faculty to understand that they are accountable for demonstrating student learning will make it all the easier for university administrators to start tracking students and imposing ever more restrictions on what and how we teach.

I make it a point to identify and articulate course learning outcomes for all my courses, including graduate seminars.  I also include a "map" that illustrates how the different learning activities in the course will help students reach these outcomes.  It took a bit of practice to learn to think about teaching and course design in these terms but, after two years, it's become second nature.  These are the learning outcomes for Online Rome.  The least important of them is mastery of the course content.  I am much more interested in helping students develop crucial "soft skills":

·         become active, “self-regulated” learners
·         learn and become more skilled at good time management techniques
·         learn basic skills of “reading” ancient texts/art/architecture
·         develop and practice ability to think make connections between different parts of course (i.e. think analytically)
·         develop and practice ability to evaluate competing explanations or theories
·         master basic narrative of Ancient Roman cultural history from Iron Age-2nd Century CE


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