Three morsels and a question

Yesterday, some words of wisdom from teaching and learning scholar Phyllis Blumberg’s latest book crossed my virtual desk. They do that thing I really love the stuff that spams my inbox to do: they say a bunch of should-be-obvious things in ways that make me think about why they should be obvious, and why nevertheless they often are not, for many of us anyway. Whether you teach at the secondary school or college level, in private or public institutions, I suspect they will resonate. Here are my favourite three morsels, followed by a question for all of you related to the issues they raise.


First, Blumberg talks about learning “objectives” vs learning “outcomes”. I’m betting many of you, like me, have learned to tune these phrases out, rolling your eyes along the way. Yes, yes, we all have objectives and stuff! We know what we want the kids to learn already! As for these terms, they are just university biz-speak; they mean the same thing. Right?

Actually, no. Here’s Blumberg, helpfully, on the difference between “objectives” and “outcomes”:

Learning outcomes are the big picture, often complex goals that instructors expect students to achieve or learn by the end of the course.  They should be stated in terms of student performance, not what the instructor hopes to achieve, such as what content will be covered.  Learning outcomes are also called instructional goals (Diamond, 2008; Nilson, 2003).

Learning objectives are smaller units of learning that flow directly from the learning outcomes.  While a course may have about five larger learning outcomes, each learning outcome may have a few learning objectives associated with it.  For example, learning objectives may describe what students will learn from the discussion in a specific class. The literature often interchanges learning outcomes and learning objectives. In this book, I am referring to the larger learning outcomes.

I’ve realized, as I’ve thought about this over the last 24 hours, that while I have plenty of (let’s face it, stock) “outcomes” on my course outlines, I almost never take the time carefully to think them through, much less to link objectives to outcomes. Students will learn to write proper critical essays; students will write some critical essays in order to do that. Except –

Most concepts and tasks in higher education are complex, involving different component skills, cognitive processes, and many different facts.  To help students learn, instructors need to break down these complex concepts or tasks into their component parts, provide students opportunities to perform these skills or cognitive processes separately, and then allow them to practice the integrated tasks before assessing them. Instructors can point out the key aspects of the task so students know where to concentrate their efforts (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Jeez – duh! Except for the part where I’d never actually thought consciously about this cause-effect framework before. Thinking back to my course this past term on Shakespeare’s afterlives (QM Drama’s DRA 316: “Shakespeare After Shakespeare”), I considered the work we did in the weeks after spring break on building individual essay topics, then on creating essay-related presentations to solicit peer feedback, and then on the essays proper; I realised that the outcome I was aiming for was not “will learn to write proper critical essays” but rather “will learn to work methodically through all of the steps required in order to build independent areas of research interest, and will then apply that learning in the creation of a personal-interest-driven critical essay modelled on the kind of independent critical exploration characteristic of graduate school study”. I also realise that the objectives I employed were multifaceted: 1) will study and practice the process of developing independent research questions; 2) will learn how to shape research questions into essay topics; 3) will test the viability of research questions via peer feedback; 4) will learn to re-shape (sometimes reformulate completely) essay questions based on that feedback without panicking unduly; etc.

Why didn’t I think of this stuff, in this way, before? I think I know the reason (one of them, anyway).

Preparing course outlines during summer research time is (one) onerous, and (two) also works frequently only at the level of theory (because, let’s face it – it’s summer). I undertake this work mostly under duress, try to get it done pretty quickly, and rely on what I think will be “really cool” rather than (in some cases anyway) on what has worked well before. I tend to over-tweak existing formulas based on the elusive/imagined “really cool” factor, rather than letting the formula rest for another year or simply refining the outcomes/objectives a bit with the past year’s evidence fully in mind. Note that I always want to do the latter – I keep and annotate all my course evaluations for this purpose. I just don’t give it enough time or care, I think, because I don’t take the pedagogical logic behind the language of “outcomes/objectives” seriously enough when I’m also kind of hurrying through the task so I can get back to the book/article/conference paper/edition/whatever. In fact, as the above example from DRA 316 demonstrates, “outcomes/objectives” are absolutely central to the most interesting, and the most fun, work I do with students. If I forget about them come course-prep time, I risk losing all that productive fun, the legacy of previous work and the power of framing its value clearly for students in future.

And on that note, Blumberg offers me one more crucial morsel I want to share here.

The relationship between the difficulty of a course and student learning is curvilinear.  The best learning occurs when the course is perceived as difficult enough to be challenging, but still seen as achievable.  Under these circumstances, students are motivated to try.  If a course is too easy, students do not put forth any effort.  If the course is perceived as too difficult, students are not motivated to try because they think there is no way they will succeed (McKeachie, 2007).

I’m pretty sure we all aim for this, in theory, all the time. But many of us often don’t succeed. Why not? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s because we haven’t built the logic of this statement into the “objectives/outcomes” framework that (if you’re like me) you’ve been busy dissing/ignoring/putting up with rather than taking fully on board as a pedagogical tool.

What, then, if every course you taught next semester featured as a stated outcome:

  • “Students will learn that being intellectually challenged can be a source of pleasure, a source of community, and a site of genuine personal growth!”

…followed by a bunch of complementary objectives? And what might some of those objectives be?

That’s the question. Please weigh in!




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