A problem with learning outcomes… and mayby curriculum in general

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Having clear learning goals in a course has been a great step forward for education.  In courses where this practise is used (and used well) students know exactly what they will be able to do if they successfully learn the material in the course. There is also a clearer view of what the practical requirements are for what they have to do to prove that they have learnt what they are supposed to learn.

The problem comes when you don’t really agree with the learning outcomes of a course. Now, I know that any course contains core material, but at the same time students should have the freedom to decide what they concentrate on. For example:

I am currently taking a course called “Numerical Approximation and Discretization”. The learning goals boil down to “understanding, selecting, utilizing, assessing and creating” different Numerical Approximation techniques.studying

Now, I will never have a career in numerical approximation. However, I might find it useful to understand and select techniques of numerical approximation in some future research that I do. I will probably never have to create my own technique so why should I learn how to do it? Or even more importantly, why should I be assessed on my ability to do that? Would it not be possible for us to be provided with a range of possible learning outcomes for a course and let us choose the ones that we want to pursue? Those can then be tested more rigorously. We would still be exposed to the other things, but will be allowed to concentrate on that which we are passionate about. I don’t think that this is that far fetched, for instance I already get to choose the courses in the program that interest me, why not have a choice over the goals within those courses?

I know that any form of granularity makes a professor or curriculum committee’s job much harder. However, in courses where assessment is already based around certain outcomes I feel it would not be too difficult to weight assessments based on the student’s preference in outcomes.

It all really boils down to this: Should students have some kind of input on their goals learning goals for a specific subject, or is that something that should only be decided by a curriculum committee?

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7 thoughts on “A problem with learning outcomes… and mayby curriculum in general

  1. As much as we all hate it, there’s definite value to being forced to learn something which doesn’t interest you directly. I don’t care if you get your absolute dream job – there will be parts of it you won’t enjoy but will have to do anyways, and building the discipline to perform in these situations is important. Plus, how can an unexperienced student know exactly which information will be useful down the road and which will not? Presumably you’re not yet an expert in the field you are studying, and therefore can’t forsee exactly what will be necessary knowledge…

  2. I agree Nicholas that there is value to learning things that do not interest us. I still think it is important that each course has a core of learning outcomes that everyone is assessed against. However, think of it as a micro version of your degree requirements. In my degree I have some courses that I have to take, some that I can choose between and then other courses that I can choose from whatever the university offers. I think individual courses would benefit from the same levels of granularity.

    Also, as for not being an expert, while that may be true in 1st and 2nd year courses, by the time you reach courses that do not start with “introduction to” you should have enough knowledge to make some kind of a value judgment over what you think you should learn.

  3. Oh, yes! Students should have at least some freedom in setting their own learning goals. At the Hanze University of Applied Science (Groningen, Netherlands) – where I work – all students are required to make their own personel development plan. Based upon this plan, which has to be approved by a coucellor, they add their own learning goals to the goals set by the currciculum.

    The amount of freedom differs with education and experience. An art student generally has more freedom than e.g. a technology student and in the 1st year students hava less freedom then later on.

  4. @Erwin wow, the Hanze University of Applied Science sounds like a great institution. I’m glad to see that these ideas have actually been put in practice and are working.

  5. wow! good post. I get the same eerie feeling. It’s not only a matter of choice. it’s a matter of intrinsic quality. the utility of a course is not the same for everyone (the number of options “when I grow up…” is increasing) the boundaries (and therefore the outcomes) of courses are dissipiating.

    Thanks for your post. It has helped me in my own quest.

  6. Well, I think the learning outcomes work as they are at UBC right now (from what I’ve seen, at least). It ensures that everybody learns the same material for future courses/careers.

    However, I agree that things should be customizable. But I think at that point students should do some extra studying of their own. I don’t know if it would be right to burden professors with having to mark/assess different material for each student.

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