Thursday, May 14, 2015

Learning Outcomes and Competency Based Degrees

Educators made the shift several years ago to think of college classes in terms of "outcomes" rather than professors talking about a topic. This is a good model, assuming that there are clear reasons for these courses to exist. I support this approach, although a certain personality can obsess over outcomes in unhelpful ways.

1. Unexamined assumptions can come into play here too. The benefit of some courses may be the journey rather than some specified destination. So IWU parents often have said, "You need to take a class with Wilbur Williams while you're at IWU." What they are saying is that there is something about the experience of a class with him that is possibly more significant than the Old Testament content of the class. Students have often talked about the experience for the rest of their life, long after they have forgotten when King Jeroboam II reigned.

But it would be foolish to put that on a syllabus--"By the end of this course, students should be able to articulate the benefit of taking a class with Wilbur Williams." The fact that some would almost have you say something like that demonstrates the current sickness and obsession in some parts of the academy.

It is perfectly legitimate for some courses--maybe a small minority but they are an important reminder--to be about the journey rather than a specific destination. The greatest benefit of some courses is also somewhat intangible. It's not that you can't find way to measure such things. It's that you shouldn't always have to. "By the end of this Frisbee game, the student should be able to articulate the importance of having fun." That's how twisted the assessment obsession becomes in the hands of some personalities.

You don't have to measure something for it to be good. There's a positivist fallacy at work here. "If a student learns something in the forest, and there's no one there to measure it, does she actually learn something." The answer is yes. How about this one. "If a student has clean fun at the university, and it doesn't have a learning outcome, is it a good thing." Yes. Yes, it is.

The outcomes shift has been a real improvement to our educational system. It just needs to be kept in proper perspective. There's a special padded cell waiting for those who obsess about the verbs in the outcomes list of a proposed course.

2. Ironically, I didn't actually start this post to rant about the current assessment obsession of the academy. My point was rather that you can break down the essential knowledge and skills content of a course into micro-outcomes. The movement toward competency based granting of academic credit is fascinating to me, and I strongly support it as an option.

Obviously you lose some of the experience of a classroom. You lose the professor-student experience that, for many of us, is more of what we remember from college than the actual content. I would hate for us to go to an extreme (again) and say this is the only way to conceptualize a course. I hope that in 10 years a new course proposal will not require 1500-2000 individually specified micro-outcomes, each of which needs to be assessed. This is the trajectory of the academy right now.

Mind you, it would be fun for me to create that list (as long as I was not required to). For example, it would be fun to break down a New Testament survey course into a long list of knowledge and skills outcomes. If a person could demonstrate that he or she had that knowledge and skills, why not grant them credit for the class, even if he or she has never sat in a classroom? The credit becomes something more like a certification of knowledge and skills rather than a statement about time spent in a room.

3. Some teachers will notice that I have left off what we call "dispositional" or "attitudinal" outcomes. They're hard to measure even in the traditional classroom. Perhaps a first thought is that this is one place where a hyper-outcomes, competency based-approach is inferior to having a classroom experience.

But not necessarily. You can require, as an artifact to demonstrate competency, interaction with people or experiences in the student's own context in order to undergo attitudinal change. Reflective writing can demonstrate maturity achieved. Never say never.

4. The competency based approach seems to be the next thing. It has the potential to reduce student debt, speed up the process of getting through college, to clarify with great specificity what given courses are really about, and to ensure that students do in fact acquire such knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

An outcomes orientation has a tendency to clean up a lot of waste in the classroom. Obsession aside, it is clearly a good thing. There can be intangible benefits to the classroom experience, but there is plenty of room for improvement there too. How many students can't remember whole classes they took in college? It's very common!

A lot of general education classes are this way. Students take them to check them off a list and hardly remember that they ever took them. They may not even be able to tell you who the professor was a year or two later. That seems like a waste. That professor hasn't left a personal mark and is more or less extraneous. That course might just as well have been skipped. It's not doing what it's supposed to do.

If students don't have fun memories of a class or professor they took, then I'm not sure there's any basis to say that it wouldn't have been just as good or probably better for them just to have worked through achieving a list of competencies on their own. And, if there is a mentor involved, we have just come full circle back to the Ox-Bridge model, where a professor set a string of individualized learning experiences until s/he was satisfied that the student was cooked.

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