End Planning and Start Storytelling with Learning Outcomes

Confusion of goals and perfection of means seems, in my opinion, to characterize our age (Einstein).

Imagine the ideal student 10 years after your class. What do you want them to know? What are your hopes for them? What do you imagine they will be doing?

We rarely think about what our students will be like in the future. Most of us are focused on what we are doing now.

Assessment professionals (like me) and accreditation people will usually say: “Begin with what you care about and what you find meaningful.” And then they hand you a guidebook and tell you the following:

“Make sure the outcome is measureable (or SMART). Make sure to fit the outcome into a cycle. Use the right verbs. Align the learning outcomes with programmatic, departmental, and college goals.”

Basically, all of the meaningfulness is sucked out by the process that’s handed to you. Why do we make assessment painful or mind-numbing? It doesn’t have to be about arbitrary standard-setting, bureaucratic control, or an anxiety-inducing exercise in verb-selection, but that’s how a lot of people feel about it. If you read assessment books or look at on-line college guides, they’re all pretty much the same. Best practices are encouraged because they are familiar. It rarely leads to anything new.

There are people who hate assessment, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t care about learning. Writing outcomes that are meaningful to you and accountable to others is possible. If you tell your classroom’s or program’s story well, you shouldn’t even have to really worry about accountability.

A creative and non-conforming approach that puts more focus on storytelling, as opposed to calculating and planning, can perhaps be a better and more engaging way to write learning outcomes (1).

Step 1. Start with Questions

Rather than thinking of writing learning outcomes as a planning exercise, think of it as storytelling. Margot Leitman provides a good method for writing stories. Start with questions (2):

I would like to know ____________ about my program.
I would like to know ____________ about our students.

You may get pushback from methodological fundamentalists, accreditation reviewers, and strategic planners, but don’t worry about them for now. No one from the evaluation police is going to arrest you for being different. Here are some more ideas:

We would like to know __________ about our students.
We are curious about  _______________.
Our students seem to be really good at ______________.
Our students are really scared of _________.
Our students pretend to care about __________.
Our students worry the most about __________.
We can’t believe our students think ___________.
Our students’ biggest regret is ___________.

Be practical. Focus on what you have at least a moderate level of control over. Finding a soul mate and paying off student loans may be the most anxiety-inducing thing that students deal with, but there isn’t really a lot you can do about it. The goal is utility.

Here are some story ideas from an imaginary environmental sustainability program:

I would like to know how knowledgeable students are about using statistics to solve real-world problems.

Our students worry the most about having to take the required statistics course.

Our students seem to be really good at using game simulations .

Based on the story ideas above, maybe an outcome should focus on quantitative knowledge? Another outcome could focus on encouraging game simulations. Using storytelling, these ideas were selected because I find them meaningful, as opposed to the result of a planning exercise.

Step 2. Connect the Story Ideas to Learning Domains

Brainstorming and being creative is fun, but you do have to get a little organized with learning outcomes. With the previous questions in mind, think about what kinds of knowledge you want your students to learn. Education experts organize learning into three domains:

Affective Domain: What do you want students to care about or value? (Feelings, Emotions, Attitudes)
Cognitive Domain: What do you want students to know? (Intellectual)
Behavioral Domain: What do you want students to be able to do? (Physical)

This is where we start to use storytelling to make the connection between what we care about and what we want students to learn (3).

I would like to know how knowledgeable students are about using statistics to solve real-world problems. This looks like a problem in the cognitive domain. Perhaps a learning outcome should focus on assessing how students apply statistics or quantitative thinking to real-world problems?

Our students worry the most about having to take the required statistics course. This looks like a problem in the affective domain, so maybe a learning outcome could get at the idea of student confidence or attitudes towards math?

Our students seem to be really good at using game simulations .This looks like an outcome in the behavioral domain. Perhaps an outcome should be developed that looks at if and/or why game simulations are an effective learning strategy?

Step 3 – Write the Learning Outcome Statement

Some people get really sophisticated with learning outcomes. This paper, which is quite good, states that learning outcomes statements are complete, Kantian sentences. I have no idea what Kantian means, so I googled it. It’s good advice.

I agree that verbs and syntax matter. But it takes practice and time. Like strategic planning, they also have the potential to take away from creativity. The goal is to find a balance. I think balance can be achieved if you use storytelling techniques, as opposed to planning techniques. Planning puts too much emphasis on calculation, and not enough on improvement (1). Balance can be achieved using storytelling because the learning outcomes are attached to already-existing narratives that are meaningful to you, not someone else.

I use the term learning outcomes, but choose whatever you want: goals, objectives, outcomes, targets…whatever works. They’re all statements of intention.

When you have the domain, match it to the right verb. Here’s the first story narrative:

I would like to know how knowledgeable students are about using statistics to solve real-world problems. This looks like a problem in the cognitive domain. Perhaps a learning outcome should focus on assessing how students apply statistics or quantitative thinking to real-world problems?

By referencing this table (p. 2), I can see “apply” as a level in the cognitive learning area. A list of verbs is next to the level. I will build my learning outcome around the verb that best articulates what I am getting at:

Students will be able to construct an advocacy report written for a general audience on the economic benefits of bicycle commuting. 

A more structured method to writing learning outcomes is the ABCD Method (Audience-Behavior-Condition-Degree).  I like this method because it requires the program to make learning explicit and operationalizes the assessment.

Given the results from their environmental impact study (condition), students (audience) will be able to construct an advocacy report (behavior) written for a general audience (degree) on the economic benefits of bicycle commuting. 

The best part about using storytelling, as opposed to planning, in creating learning outcomes is that the learning outcome is genuine. A lot of people focus on transparent or sustainable learning outcomes. I have no idea why sustainability in learning outcomes is a worthwhile goal. Transparent outcomes are written for accreditation and compliance. Outcomes can be put anywhere – marketing materials, websites, catalogs, reports, etc. But that doesn’t make them useful. Being transparent is just an activity and it says little about being honest or truthful.

Genuine outcomes are written to help students learn and programs improve. The best storytelling advice is to tell the truth.

*******************
(1) Assessment has its roots in empirical and mostly quantitative analyses of learning. In the 1980’s, it was co-opted by the planning and improvement field. Remnants of this movement are still around. Assessment plans are fine, but there’s a problem with using assessment as a driver of planning: “The problem is that planning represents a calculating style of management, not a committing style. Managers with a committing style engage people in a journey. They lead in such a way that everyone on the journey helps shape its course. As a result, enthusiasm inevitably builds along the way. Those with a calculating style fix on a destination and calculate what the group must do to get there, with no concern for the members’ preferences….calculated strategies have no value in and of themselves…strategies take on value only as committed people infuse them with energy (H. Mintzberg, Harvard Business Journal, January-February 1994, p. 109).” Plans should certainly have some intentionality and direction, but learning outcomes aren’t the same as strategic goals.
(2) This was also proposed as an idea-generating process by Patton in Utilization-Focused Evaluation (1978).
(3) Focus on the story and meaning first, and learning taxonomy second. Some people will try to develop learning outcomes that cover all three of the taxonomies. There’s nothing wrong with having all cognitive outcomes, or all affective outcomes. Additionally, the three domains are not mutually exclusive. There can be overlap; don’t feel like a leaning outcome has to fit a domain. For example, a student with crutches who is leaning to write will encounter all three domains: cognitive (writing), psychomotor (interruptions due to adjusting crutches), and maybe affective (frustration or a feeling of accomplishment).

About rlsmith205

Bloomington-Normal, IL
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