Keywords for the Age of Austerity 2.5: Learning Outcomes

A short, digestable, and easily implementable keywords definition for your weekend, because some of these words practically write themselves.

For more on learning outcomes, let’s take a listen to the Dean of Students at Brigham Young University, who has put together a helpful site to explain a concept ubiquitous in higher education.

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Says the BYU page:

The most commonly used and perhaps parsimonious [that means “stingy or frugal,” take note—ed] “definition of ‘learning outcomes’ proposes that they are ‘what a student is expected to be able to DO as a result of a learning activity.’

“Parsimonious” is a key term here: because even though syllabus statements on “learning outcomes” are formally directed to students, their real audience is administrators. It is academic administrators who require them, after all, because such ostensibly empirical measurements help assess the “value,” and hence the budget, of academic programs.

But to return to the definition: what, you might not be asking, does “DO” mean? Let BYU first tell you first what it doesn’t mean: it does not mean “know,”  “understand,” “comprehend,” or, God forbid, “learn.” “There must be a doing in the do of a learning outcome,” says the dean’s office, so verbs like “know” and “learn” are  too abstract for the kind of knowledge  learning activities outcomes need to describe. A list of preferable verbs includes “define,” “compute,” and “implement.”

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COMPUTE THIS

In the “learning outcomes” definition above—“what a student is expected to be able to DO”—“expected,” we learn, refers only to “learning activities” conducted intentionally, not those that happen accidentally or serendipitously. Those are inefficient and cannot be implemented, computed, or defined. (Don’t tell these guys serendipity can’t be implemented.)

Like the other words in this series—innovation and stakeholderlearning outcomes is a superficial concept that crumbles under even slight scrutiny. But its empirically verifiable meaninglessness conceals the zeal for empirical measurability that it demonstrates. And in the education world, these kind of measurements are only ever about cutting back.

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