Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What does "Learning Outcome" mean? No, really....

"Confusors" are terms such as "teaching," "assessment," and "interactive,"  each of which has  several widely-held, conflicting definitions. When clashing definitions remain hidden, bad things can happen, needlessly.

For example, imagine a group of faculty hotly arguing the consequences of 'technology in classrooms.'  Perhaps some have a lecture hall in mind, others a seminar room, and still others are thinking about the library because, for them, "classroom" is a synonym for course. Meanwhile some are assuming 'technology' only means computers, a problem if some of the others are imagining cell phones or laboratory demonstration equipment.

Similarly it's dangerous to draw many conclusions from an article about what's wrong with MOOCs if the author didn't explicitly select one of the many accepted, conflicting definitions of "MOOC".

"Learning outcome" is also a confusor, I now realize. Earlier today I read this sentence in a report addressed to provosts and other senior administrators about the value of a new teaching strategy, " ...72% of institutions showed improved student learning outcomes."

Nowhere in this report is the term 'learning outcome' defined. That made me more conscious that most of the time when I hear "learning outcome" used in conversation, it's left undefined.  Set aside the question of whether that 72% improvement was measured in a single course, or across many degree programs.  There are at least three widely-used definitions of 'learning outcomes':
  1. Good test results or grades at the end of a unit or a semester. Often good marks can be achieved through memorization or applying routine problem solving skills in a routine way.  Teaching to the test is one way to improve this kind of learning outcome. Cramming for exams is another.  "Here today, gone tomorrow," is what many faculty and educational researchers agree happens to much of this kind of learning.
  2. Reduction in failure and dropout rates from a course.  This definition overlaps #1, but sometimes a student might drop a class for reasons unrelated to learning. 
  3. Learning that lasts. In this definition, achieving a learning outcome means that students developed a capability and then showed they could use it in a later course, for example.  This definition implies that, if a student has achieved a learning outcome during college, they can use it in graduate school or a job the next year.
So the report I was reading asserted that " ...72% of institutions showed improved student learning outcomes"  What does the author mean? From here on, "learning outcome" joins my list of hot buttons - confusors that can cause real trouble.

PS. This web site describes many more confusors. Do you have a favorite?