The Outcome of Limiting Learning

Liz Morrish argues that learning outcomes are really not that important for either lecturers or students.

This post is about creating opportunity by freeing ourselves from some of our learning, teaching and assessment practices which set limits on the development of important graduate abilities like understanding that there are different forms of knowledge, different sources of knowledge, and that all knowledge does not originate from authority. Students need to integrate this awareness into the process of developing confidence, resilience and academic judgement. Indeed, an earlier post on the so-called ‘teaching REF’ argued that this is precisely the sort of learning gain which will be assessed. 

Educationalist Julian Stern (2013) tells us that the most essential characteristic of a successful educational experience is SURPRISE. Over the past ten years in UK higher education, we have been sucked deeper and deeper into the conformity exacted by regulatory bodies, but also of our own design. We are in danger of offering a rather repetitive, initiative-draining experience to students. I offer examples of two overly-restrictive practices: learning outcomes and formative assessment.

If we teach in universities, I’m sure we all do a decent job of drafting module specifications. We all know how to harmonize our objectives with subject and course objectives, cascading from benchmark statements and aligning with our university’s nominated graduate attributes. And then we put them in a folder and forget about them. I have yet to meet an academic who can tell me the learning objectives of any of their modules without consulting the specs. They can, of course, tell me all about the content, and what they hope the students will take from the module. Even transferable skills are more relevant to the learning and teaching process than learning objectives. So let’s free ourselves from that particular constraint.

Assessment has become more like a contract of sale than an educational experience. Anyone who has been in universities for a decade or more will recognise this scenario. You have a curriculum review, and there you discover the previous guidelines have all been reversed. In the last exercise I experienced, we did a quick 180 and overturned the framework which had considered multiple forms of assessment a virtue. No more assessment for learning, or assessment for equality and accessibility. Instead, we should confine ourselves fewer types of assessment, and fewer points of summative assessment. Intermediate feedback should be provided by formative feedback, AKA teaching to the test, and closely aligned with clear indicators of achievement against learning outcomes.

The danger I see in both learning outcomes and formative assessment is that we evacuate any possibility of surprise in learning. If it’s the 5th of November, it must be Semantics. Take the online practice test next week. But more damaging for the prospects of our students is that we have emptied our curriculum of any risk that they will need to exercise their own academic judgement. If I set a project brief for students, they expect me to advise on the research question, the nature of the data, the number of subjects, and the methods of analysis they should employ. This is the nature of formative feedback. I often feel I am assessing my own work. I recognise that students would benefit from pursuing group work, but even then, anxieties about dilution of individual marks compromises that learning experience, and makes it a hazardous venture for both students and staff. Formative feedback requires endless rehearsal for the summative event. Far from reducing anxiety, it makes assessment loom very large all through the module. What if I could assess my students on the basis of what they learn from risk taking, exercising judgement and initiative?

It is a long time ago since I taught in the USA, but I do remember that I had much more opportunity for flexibility of delivery and assessment. I could give them an unannounced quiz anytime I wanted. I could set an essay. I could walk in and announce I was cancelling the final exam. I could give them all As if they deserved them. If a visiting speaker was coming to talk on a relevant topic, I could assign the class to go, and expect a summary paper from each student. There was a syllabus, but I felt free to deviate from it. Alas, this Garden of Eden no longer exists, as the US has led the way in consumerist approaches to higher education.

So what if we had the flexibility to be responsive to current events? I was incredibly lucky one year, that former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave *that* speech on sexism and misogyny on the very day I was approaching the topic of sexist language in my module. What a gift, and what an inspiration to the class that day. But what if I had been scheduled to teach another topic? Learning opportunity missed. Learning is a wandering, progressive, transformative process. Yes, we need to impose clarity, structure and analysis, but let’s not make that the ultimate goal of all our modules, because we are missing some really important learning opportunities. Perhaps we should assess the strength of modules with just one question on course evaluations: “what surprises have you had in this module?”

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