Using Student Learning Outcomes to Create a Purpose-Driven Course

Cindy Blackwell, Ph.D.
Cindy Blackwell is an ACUE Academic Director and earned her ACUE Certificate in Effective College Instruction in 2017 at The University of Southern Mississippi.

Cindy BlackwellMy first experience with learning outcomes is similar to that of many faculty. I was a graduate student who was handed a syllabus complete with student learning outcomes for the course I was assigned to teach. At that point, the outcomes on the syllabus meant little to me; I was just trying to get through content and look like I knew what I was doing.

Since that time, I have evolved from ignoring the learning outcomes to seeing them as the required university “course outcomes” to now using student learning outcomes as a way to bring purpose and understanding to my courses for both me and students. As Larry Spence wrote in his article The Case Against Teaching (2001), “We won’t meet the needs for more and better higher education until professors become designers of learning experiences and not teachers” (p. 18).

Establishing powerful learning outcomes is the foundation of designing learning experiences.

Too often student learning outcomes are written to reflect what the faculty will do instead of what the student will learn. Perhaps this is the origin of the term “course outcomes” — outcomes from the faculty’s or university’s point of view instead of the student’s point of view. Reframing these outcomes to be what the student will learn and making them student-centered, observable and actionable, specific, and including a range of cognitive levels will bring purpose to your course for both you and students. Of course, for some disciplines student learning outcomes are mandated by a program or accrediting organization. When this is the case, it is even more important to analyze your outcomes to truly understand the spirit and purpose of each, even and especially if you cannot alter them in any way. It is also important to translate the outcomes from accreditation-speak to student-friendly language. Understanding the purpose of the student learning outcomes is only the first step in the design process.

The next step is alignment.

Learning outcomes can be easily divorced from the content of the course, meaning the outcomes are written and then the content is created without much or any thought to how they are connected. When I ask faculty to do a gap and overlap alignment analysis of their learning outcomes, we frequently find that some outcomes are heavily burdened while others are completely unencumbered from any course content and ultimately serve no purpose. It is through this analysis you can be sure your assessments are aligned to the learning outcomes, meet the appropriate cognitive levels of the learning outcomes, and that the class activities and assignments intentionally prepare students for assessments. It is indeed a process to do this type of deliberate course design.

With so much involved, I recognize the concern that students do not care about learning outcomes, so why put so much into them. If students do not care, it is because faculty do not care, or at least we don’t show students we care or show how helpful learning outcomes can be. If you have well designed learning outcomes, you can demonstrate to students how each activity, assignment and assessment fits into the overall purpose of your course and how your course fits into the overall purpose of the student’s education and life. Purpose-driven course design, beginning with establishing intentional student learning outcomes, would put an end to the idea that another day has gone by without using college algebra, and instead create the understanding that rarely a day goes by without using algebraic thinking. Purpose-driven course design offers the why in addition to the how.

Engage students with the learning outcomes.

As previously noted, once you have your course strategically designed, it is important to communication this intentionality with your students and engage them with the learning outcomes. One simple way to do so includes referencing the student learning outcome that connects to each section of your course. When you begin a new topic, take a few moments to make the connection for students, taking the connection as far beyond your classroom as possible.

Another innovative way to engage students in the learning outcomes is to have students tell you their summative perspective of the learning outcomes. As the last assignment of the semester, Dr. Pamela Greene at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi asks her graduate nursing students in her Health Policy and Cultural Diversity course to analyze the learning outcomes and develop a discussion relating to the one outcome the students least met throughout the course for each student. For example, as a student, if at the end of the course I did not feel I completely understood the learning outcome of “Integrate the cultural strengths of specific groups, subcultures, or communities into problem- solving strategies,” I would research an element related to that outcome and share my discussion using appropriate citations and references. This does three wonderful things. First, it allows students to select and analyze their own learning gaps and take control of their learning. Second, it allows students to engage in discussion and gain each other’s research-based perspective of the learning outcomes allowing for a perspective broader than that of the faculty. And finally, it offers excellent feedback for the faculty on where there might be gaps in the overall course design or in assignment and assessment alignment.

Without a doubt, this is heavy lifting in terms of course design. The analyzation and alignment of the many part of your course is no easy task, but it is more than worth the investment. Once in place, there are myriad ways student learning outcomes can benefit both you and students. Move beyond seeing learning outcomes as a university or accreditation requirement and on to view learning outcomes as the first step in designing an unforgettable and purpose-driven learning experience for your students. Doing so will offer you and your students a greater connection to your course and show that you really do know what you are doing.

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