Guest Contributor: Worth Hawes, PhD, Senior Academic Services Consultant, Cengage Learning.

In today’s post, Worth Hawes shares how his attitudes toward setting learning outcomes have changed since his time as a PhD student teaching philosophy to undergrads. How have your opinions, perceptions, and attitudes shifted with regard to establishing expected outcomes up front? Has your experience been similar, or have you taken a different road to the opinion you have today? Please share with us in the comments section below.

I’ll confess that when I was finishing up my PhD in philosophy fifteen years ago—writing the dissertation in between grading undergraduate intro to philosophy papers—my approach to teaching was quite different than it would be today. Back then I looked at my philosophy classrooms as something like “domains of free-ranging wonder.” To have stated up front what the specific learning outcomes should have been would have been an anathema to me. The “goals” as I understood them were just to read some classically great works of philosophy and then to talk about what we were discovering in the reading. The most compelling themes would have emerged as we went along. Sure, I had some loose themes in mind, but as an intro class the real goals were just to make the subject “interesting,” or, if a student really got excited, to suggest some additional philosophy classes for him or her. I figured that the only truly desirable outcome was that someday down the road the student would actually decide to read some philosophy on his or her own, at which point they would think back fondly on the graduate TA who opened his or her eyes to the “joy of philosophy.” Certainly there are kinds of philosophy that are focused rigorously on argumentation and logic, but that was never why I went into philosophy. I was always looking for discussions or descriptions of the human predicament that “resonated” with my own emerging sense of the world. My goals really were all about the “romance” of philosophy. I didn’t really care if my students could recite passages or arguments.

Fifteen years later now, having worked for most of that time with an academic publisher in various marketing, editorial, and curriculum development roles, my outlook on the value of learning outcomes and what I learned teaching and/or learning the college classroom has changed.

For better or worse, all of us—employed in academia (tenured or not), employed in corporate America, self-employed, etc.—are getting a paycheck because we add value to other people’s lives. The value can be financial, moral, existential, or something else, but at root we’re increasing value for others. And in a time where the value proposition of higher education is rapidly coming unhinged [costs too much, takes too much time, lacks enough state funding, demands too much student debt, isn’t preparing for good jobs (if they even exist anymore), etc.] everybody wants to know what specifically is the value of taking any particular course. What specifically is a student going to be able to do after they’ve taken this course? In effect, we’re in the midst of a collective redefinition of the fundamental “value proposition” of American higher education. What really is the goal of higher education, and are we really putting forth the most efficient—fastest, cheapest, best—path to that goal to today’s students ?

The larger collective effort to redefine the value proposition for most of us is too vast a proposition to even entertain. But each college instructor does have the opportunity now with the push toward improved student learning outcomes to be specific about the value(s) that their classes aim to provide. At its root, the drive towards improved outcomes is about increased accountability for students and teachers alike. Learning outcomes, by establishing the core skills or capabilities that a student should learn in a given course or program, imply that there’s something valuable in obtaining these competencies. Well-formed learning outcomes and objectives should also provide a discrete path towards the mastery of the competencies. And thus, it’s against this backdrop or matrix of clearly stated goals and accountabilities that students and teachers both have renewed chances clearly to define success in their respective roles in the classroom. What the learning outcomes of a class are and how specifically a student should achieve them need not be secrets to be discovered along the way.

It’s easy to find long lists of instructor complaints about the drive toward improved learning outcomes: they’re too artificial, too reductive, too restrictive, too focused on measurable quantifiable results, etc. But there’s a chance now to experience a gestalt switch and suddenly find oneself wondering why “starting at the end” hasn’t always been the case in the college classroom. It’s such a simple shift in an instructor’s frame of reference; yet it can have such an immense impact on making the student’s experience in a classroom less confusing than it needs to be.

If you’re a college instructor reading this article, what might be most helpful for me to do now is talk about the mechanics of writing strong learning outcomes and then how best to track student progress against them using the analytics package of your campus’ LMS. In fact, I will do exactly this in another upcoming post. But before doing that, I’ll conclude this article with some advice about how to determine the most attractive learning outcomes in the abstract:

In some cases learning outcomes are being imposed from without—by administrators, by accreditors, by scholarly organizations, by trade organizations—but where instructors still find themselves with some authority over these decisions, I encourage them to speak with their best former students and talk with them about what really made a valuable difference in their lives and/or careers in a given course. What particular skills did the best students garner from this course? I suspect it would be enlightening and helpful in developing learning outcomes about which both students and instructors could get motivated.

Worth Hawes has been an Academic Services Consultant for General Education, Social Sciences, and Humanities since 2008. With more than twelve years of publishing experience, he previously worked in a range of functions: editorial, marketing, sales, and business innovation. Worth has a PhD. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University.