What college course learning outcomes SHOULD be…

I have suggested previously that NO college level course should have learning outcomes that are written at the lower cognitive levels.  Working from Bloom’s Taxonomy, a college level course learning outcome should NOT be to define, explain, describe, discuss, list or identify.  College level courses should require students to analyze, apply, synthesize and evaluate new knowledge and concepts.  They should be expected to use new knowledge, concepts and skills not simply remember or comprehend them.

The question or issue typically raised is almost always similar to, “Students must acquire basic skills and knowledge before they can operate at higher cognitive levels regarding that content.”  That is absolutely true.  However, my argument is that basic skills and knowledge are pre/requisite to achieving higher order outcomes; students that achieve higher order outcomes of a course will have implicitly demonstrated mastery of the pre/requisite skills.  So, listing the lower order skills as outcomes is both unnecessary, and from an assessment perspective, undesirable.

A theoretical example.  If I am teaching a simple three hour “Basic Baking” course, two appropriate learning outcomes might be to:

  • Bake and decorate a cake “from scratch.”
  • Evaluate the quality of a cake baked and decorated “from scratch.”

Both of those outcomes require higher order skills.  Students must be able to synthesize and apply a range of simpler skills to effectively bake and decorate a cake, and based on what they learn about the process, they must evaluate the quality of a cake. There are MANY requisite, simpler skills that are required of students if they are to achieve those two outcomes; a few of those may include:

  • Use the English measuring system to measure ingredients.
  • Use fundamental kitchen equipment such as an oven, a stand mixer, baking pans, or common utensils.
  • Identify standards for kitchen cleanliness and safety.
  • Describe different methods for determining when a cake has cooked completely.

I contend that listing the requisite skills as outcomes is both unnecessary and undesirable.  First, I do not need to list those as outcomes because the skills will have been taught to and demonstrated by students if they achieve the two higher order outcomes noted above.  And, the requisite skills are NOT the desired outcome of the course; the goals for the course are to bake and decorate a cake from scratch and to evaluate the quality of a cake.  Second, from an assessment perspective, it is undesirable to list the requisite skills as outcomes.  In Texas, state and regional agencies suggest and many institutions are requiring locally the reporting of assessment results at the course level.  Thus, if pre/requisite skills and objectives are listed as course outcomes, assessment results for those outcomes must be reported.  That creates an unnecessary burden on faculty, department chairs, and deans.  In the example above, it is much more efficient and absolutely adequate to report assessment results for the TWO higher order outcomes.  Those two higher order outcomes are the ultimate goals for the course.

Practical Example: GOVT 2301

The Spring 2012 version of the Academic Course Guide Manual published by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board includes (but is not limited to) these three outcomes for GOVT 2301 American Government I (page 107 of the PDF).

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of federal and state government.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of federalism.
  • Analyze state and local political systems and their relationship with the federal government.

The first two outcomes listed here are lower order, per Bloom’s Taxonomy (setting aside for a moment, the ineffectiveness of “demonstrate” as a verb within an outcome).  The third is a higher order outcome.  Even with my somewhat cursory knowledge of the content for GOVT 2301, I firmly believe that a student capable of analyzing state and local political systems and their relationship with the federal government will have gained a clear understanding of federalism and firm knowledge of the branches of federal and state government.  And, as an assessment specialist and instructional designer, I know I can develop an assessment method for the last outcome that would absolutely require students to achieve the first two outcomes.  Given that, I do not need to list the first two as outcomes because they are implicit in the third, and as a faculty, department chair, or dean, I would not want to have to report assessment results on all three when the results of just the third would be sufficient to meet local/state/regional assessment requirements.

Practical Example: CHEM 1112

The Spring 2012 version of the Academic Course Guide Manual published by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board includes these outcomes for CHEM 1411 General Chemistry II Lab (page 42 of the PDF).

  1. Use basic apparatus and apply experimental methodologies used in the chemistry laboratory.
  2. Demonstrate safe and proper handling of laboratory equipment and chemicals.
  3. Conduct basic laboratory experiments with proper laboratory techniques.
  4. Make careful and accurate experimental observations.
  5. Relate physical observations and measurements to theoretical principles.
  6. Interpret laboratory results and experimental data, and reach logical conclusions.
  7. Record experimental work completely and accurately in laboratory notebooks and communicate experimental results clearly in written reports.
  8. Design fundamental experiments involving principles of chemistry and chemical instrumentation.
  9. Identify appropriate sources of information for conducting laboratory experiments involving principles of chemistry.

Developing more effective higher order outcomes would be more effective.  Again, based on my cursory knowledge of the content proper, I believe there could be a single outcome for this lab course that represents a more efficient wording of outcomes 6 and 7.

  • After designing and conducting a laboratory experiment, communicate experimental results and conclusions in a written laboratory report.

Achieving that outcome will require students to achieve every outcome currently listed in the ACGM.  As students design and conduct the laboratory experiment, using basic apparatus and applying experimental methodologies will be absolutely necessary – so will demonstrating safe and proper handling of laboratory equipment and chemicals and using proper laboratory techniques.  The same goes for outcome 4, 5, and 6.  Faculty assessing student ability to communicate experimental results and conclusions in a written laboratory report are inherently going to require and measure whether the student designed the experiment based on chemistry principles and instrumentation, used appropriate sources of information, made careful and accurate experimental observations, related physical observations and measurements to theoretical principles, interpreted results, reached logical conclusions, and communicated those results and conclusions.  Why?  Because that’s what chemists do as they communicate experimental results and conclusions in a written report after designing and conducting a laboratory experiment.

ONE OUTCOME ASSESSED EFFECTIVELY REQUIRES ONE RESULT TO BE REPORTED, and students will have achieved every outcome listed currently in the ACGM.  As faculty, a department chair, or a dean, I would much prefer to report the results from the single outcome rather than trying to report students results on each and every implicit process or skill required by that single outcome.


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