From Fit to Benefit: the New Role of Learning Outcomes?

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-abby3Learning outcomes, goals, objectives – however you swing it – are increasingly a topic of conversation on campuses. The Obama administration (and, more saliently, families and students at our admission and orientation events) want to know what students get for enrolling. The conversation about selecting a college has gone from focusing on fit to benefit. As Mark’s post pointed out, tuition is expensive. So colleges and universities need to better communicate their worth before students and families will shell out serious ca$h to attend.

To many of us in higher ed, this can feel overly transactional at times because we know that learning is more than inputs and outputs. But students, families, and the community at large have a right to ask why they should invest their money and time in such a large investment. So why not be transparent about why college matters and the impact of the college experience? We know why the experience is fulfilling and life changing, so let’s just tell people that instead of getting exasperated by their not understanding (because we’re not telling them).

The Chronicle published an article (see a subscription-free version on the Augustana College website) about one college (Augustana College) attempting to convey its benefit to students by instituting learning outcomes in most outside-the-classroom experiences from athletics to student clubs and much in between. In the article, the college staff beautifully articulated the value of making extracurricular learning transparent to students. The director of advising comments that a major is only one part (though a very important part!) of what helps students find success when he says, “…it’s not what a student studies. It’s how they go about constructing an undergraduate education.” AGREED! Another staff member at a different institution comments on the importance of explicitly articulating these learning outcomes, “Until you make [students] say [their learning] out loud and prompt them to reflect on it, they may not make that connection at all.” AGREED!

I did a lot of AGREE-ing while reading this article. So, I highly suggest reading the entire piece.

But there was one quote that really got my goat: “But how much integration is too much? Advisers shouldn’t force students to fit their experiences into a neat package, and they should promote some degree of exploration.”


Or do I mean “BAAAAA”??

Ok, ok…bad goat joke.

When an institution or office constructs a list of learning outcomes, those learning outcomes do not (or at least should not) seek to dictate nor narrow the capacity or diversity of any individual student’s learning. Instead, when an institution constructs a list of learning outcomes it provides an intention for a learning foundation. A foundation which we hope students continue to build upon using their unique interests, values, and experiences. Learning outcomes aren’t trying to “fit [student] experiences into a neat package” and stifle exploration, as the article wonders. Rather, learning outcomes mark points on a map of students’ learning, so that they can explore, and then, as a result, look back and see where they’ve been and what tools they have to use moving forward.