Learning Outcomes: Part I
May 12, 2011
Accountability in Campus Recreation
Wallace Eddy, Ph.D.
Campus Recreation Services
University of Maryland (College Park)
Introduction & Overview
After reading this article, you will be able to articulate in your own words the main tenets of learning outcomes, describe the difference between indirect and direct assessment measures, and list at least two forms of assessment used to measure learning outcomes. How will I know if you have achieved these outcomes? I won’t, but after reading this article, hopefully, you will have a basic understanding of learning outcomes, a beginning point for developing learning outcomes for your department, and an understanding of the assessment issues involved in a learning outcomes program.
Why bother with learning outcomes? The notion of public accountability for what we claim to achieve in higher education is a trend that appears to have staying power. When our university was in the re-accreditation process, the area of primary focus of the accrediting body was assessment, and specifically on the assessment of learning outcomes. Of course, it is impossible to assess something that has not been explicitly stated. The university began a process whereby all departments in all colleges would develop a number of learning outcomes and assessment measures related to those outcomes resulting in assessment plans.
Although not required to participate in the process, staff members in the Division of Student Affairs formed a group to begin writing learning outcomes for the various departments in the division. The group, the Student Affairs Learning Outcomes Group, or SALOG, decided to use the same structure for the assessment plans that members of the faculty used. After some discussion, the group decided that the learning outcomes designed for student affairs should be linked to a common theoretical model. The Learning Reconsidered and Learning Reconsidered 2 documents were chosen because of the comprehensiveness of their scope and the breadth of student affairs scholars and professional associations affiliated with the process to create the documents.
The concept of learning outcomes can be rather polarizing. At the one end, the belief is that learning outcomes stifle creativity, academic freedom, “vocationalizes” academia, and you have given in to the bureaucratic bean counters. On the other end is a view that learning outcomes lead to the Promised Land, Nirvana, or some other state of perfection. In the spirit of transparency, I confess that I started out closer to the “stifling” end of the spectrum. After reading about the development of learning outcomes and working with my staff to develop outcomes for our department, I have a more moderate position regarding the use of learning outcomes in higher education in general and in campus recreation more specifically.
I must also state my belief that campus recreation has a complicated relationship with learning outcomes — and we must keep in mind both intentional and incidental outcomes as we document our work. The intentional outcomes are those related to our formal programs, and the incidental outcomes are those outcomes that may occur, but are not part of our formal program planning. Why separate the two, other than due to their distinct characteristics? I think it is important to note that incidental outcomes do occur (such as overcoming identity differences by having a common athletic goal) as a result of participation in campus recreation programs, even informal recreation programs. It is important for students to be able to recreate, and if some serendipitous learning occurs and incidental outcomes manifests itself, wonderful, but not all student time ought to be focused and directed toward formal learning outcomes.
Basics of Learning Outcomes
So, what are learning outcomes? In general, a learning outcome is a statement of what a student will be able to do or will know as a result of some learning opportunity. These statements are often written as objectives that outline what knowledge, skills, or attitudes the students will possess at the conclusion of the learning experience. When I have encountered resistance to learning outcomes, it often comes in the form of: “I know what I’m doing, I don’t need to write it out…” or “every student learns something a bit different, I can’t make all students fit one idea of learning…” or something similar. What I find is that as someone new to using learning outcomes becomes familiar with the concept, a realization occurs that the concept is really like learning a new language. The behavior of learning has been present (or should be!) in institutions of higher education always; learning outcomes is a way of expressing (language) what that learning looks like.
Why learn this new language? In addition to the need to meet accountability requirements that may be placed on institutions by governing boards or legislatures, using learning outcomes also keeps professionals focused on what students should be learning from us, our reason for being. At times staff members get caught up in the day to day management of facilities and programs and it becomes easy to lose sight of the educational goals of our departments. Depending upon the students for whom the outcomes are written and the degree to which we have contact with those students, the written articulation of learning outcomes makes clear to students what it is they should be learning from participating in recreation programs. As an aid to understanding this new language, the members of the learning outcomes group for the Division of Student Affairs compiled a list of “Characteristics of Good Learning Outcomes:”
- Are observable and measurable and specify the action(s) done by the learners
- Developed and accepted collaboratively
- In alignment with university, division, or other goal/mission statements
- Can be quantitatively or qualitatively assessed
- Assessment data are used to refine programs/activities/initiatives to better meet stated outcomes
- Incorporate/adapt professional organizations’ outcome statements when they exist
- Use action verbs
Assessment of Learning Outcomes
Developing and articulating learning outcomes is only a valuable exercise to the extent that those outcomes are assessed. The dynamic aspect of the learning outcomes concept rests in the assessment of goal achievement and the developmental application of the results of that assessment. In other words, how will you adapt, change, or further develop your program/experience/opportunity to improve the likelihood of meeting your stated outcomes? Or, do you need to change your stated outcomes based on the experience of your students?
How does one go about assessing learning outcomes? There are myriad ways to conduct assessment of learning outcomes. Two questions come to mind when considering an assessment program: (1) what level of sophistication is expected or required by the institution for such assessment projects? (2) What resources (time/staff with expertise/etc.) am I able to devote to assessment of learning outcomes? For question two, only you know the resources you have available. Regarding the level of sophistication of your assessment work, however, there is at least one area you should consider — do we need assessment measures that are direct, indirect, or a combination of the two forms?
The most common assessment occurs through indirect methods such as self-report data from questionnaires, information gathered in focus groups, and from interviews with students on what they are learning. Is there anything wrong with indirect methods? No, but what you are gathering often is an individual’s perception of what he or she has learned, rather than a direct assessment of the learning that has occurred. Some examples of direct methods of learning outcomes assessment:
- Portfolios (compilation of documents related to a learning experience)
- Capstone Projects (project that ties together the major learning of an experience)
- Performances/creations (with observation by qualified staff member)
- Case Studies
In addition to creating the direct assessment, you will also need to decide upon what criteria you will base “successful completion” of the outcome. Once these direct methods have been administered, a professional staff member with appropriate credentials needs to “score” the assessments based on the criteria you have set for that outcome. A combination of both types of assessment methods allows for the convenience of data collection (indirect) with a greater sense of rigor that comes with direct methods. Part II of this article on learning outcomes will offer some examples that will illustrate assessment methods as well as criteria for learning outcome achievement.
This article is meant to be an introduction to learning outcomes. For more detail, Learning Reconsidered 2 is an excellent publication. There are many other texts available to provide more “how to” guidance in the development of learning outcomes, sometimes listed with the assessment section of your library or bookstore. In the next issue of the ‘Risk Management Newsletter’, Part II of this article will include some examples of outcomes from campus recreation, ways that these outcomes are being assessed, and some ways that learning outcomes and risk management complement each other.