Five Problems to Avoid in Writing Student Learning Outcomes

As law faculty across the country strive to improve student learning and meet ABA standards of accreditation through the assessment process, it is perhaps appropriate to stop and assess our efforts in that regard.  Here are five common problems that occur when first writing learning outcomes for a course:

1. Don’t focus on you – focus on the students
Student learning outcomes are designed to give students an idea of what they will be learning.  Avoid learning outcomes that describe what or how your will teach and instead focus on what the students will be able to know, do, or believe.

NOT: UMKC457  Trees as Thought
Student learning outcome:  In this course, I will be exploring the philosophical thought experiment “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  I will explain my book “Trees as Focal Points for Reality” and refute critics of the proposals presented therein.

BETTER: UMKC457  Thought Experiments
Student learning outcome:  At the end of this course, students will be able to think critically and communicate effectively the metaphysical theories regarding the existence of that which cannot be perceived. Students will be able to describe how the theory of subjective idealism has impacted religious and scientific philosophy.  Through discussion and written reflection, students will demonstrate clarification of their individual values.

2. Avoid Vague Verbs
Probably one of the most common verbs found in student learning outcomes is “understand,” as in “students will understand [course content].” The problem with this as a learning outcome is that it is difficult to know what evidence would demonstrate that understanding.  A student learning outcome that uses more active and concrete verbs can unpack the type and degree of “understanding” that a professor expects.

NOT:   LAW8000  Family Law
Student learning outcome:  Students will understand the law regarding marriage regulation and the constitutional constraints on that regulation and the law of divorce, including child custody.

BETTER:  LAW 8000 Family Law
Student learning outcome: At the end of this course, students will be able to:
• identify the legal issues raised by a fact pattern involving a marriage regulation, make critical and effective arguments regarding the meaning of that regulation and its constitutional validity, and confidently predict the outcome of a challenge to that regulation
• identify relevant facts necessary to gather from a client seeking a divorce and child custody with property including real estate and pensions; draft a complete and legally effective petition for that divorce and custody action, including a parenting plan; and identify legal issues and make critical and effective arguments, applying the statutory and case law, to determine the divorce, property division, child custody and economic support in the case.
To read more about it, see Chapter Two. Understanding Understanding, of GRANT WIGGINS & JAY MCTIGHE, UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN (2nd Ed. 2005).

3. Avoid “elementitis”
A student learning outcome should not merely summarize the syllabus or be a list of topics the course will cover.  Rather, the student learning outcomes should focus on thematic elements that tie these topics together or ways in which the students will be able to use this knowledge.  As David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education notes:
We educators always face the challenge of helping our students approach complex skills and ideas. So what to do? The two most familiar strategies are learning by elements and learning about. In the elements approach, we break down the topic or skill into elements and teach them separately, putting off the whole game until later — often much later….to have a little fun I call it ‘elementitis.’
DAVID PERKINS, MAKING LEARNING WHOLE: HOW SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF TEACHING CAN TRANSFORM EDUCATION (2010).  Avoid student learning outcomes that are plagues by “elementitis” and describe instead what it is students will be able to do with course coverage.

4. Don’t Always Expect Mastery
Student learning outcomes should indicate not only the content the students will learn but how well they will learn it.  We cannot aim for mastery of all aspects of the course.  Rather, learning outcomes in some courses are necessarily going to be at an introductory level (students will “recognize” or “describe” or “identify”) while other outcomes may be aimed at higher levels of mastery.  An effective tool to determine the proficiency level of your learning outcomes is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which provides a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated learning outcomes.  To read more about it and see a list of verbs associated with differing levels of learning, see Rex Heer, A Model of Learning Objectives from Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching (2012). To read an application of this model to law school, see Paul Callister, Time to Blossom: An Inquiry into Bloom’s Taxonomy as a Hierarchy and Means for Teaching Legal Research Skills 202:2 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL 191 (2010-12).

5. Don’t Avoid Outcomes that May be Difficult to Measure
Student learning outcomes for a classroom rarely will focus entirely on the acquisition of knowledge.  At a minimum, most classes expect students to develop their cognitive and communication skills in using the knowledge base of the course.  Courses may also help students to clarify values, reconsider beliefs, appreciate new perspectives, or develop greater self-awareness.  Some faculty recognize that these skills and values are some of the most important benefits that students take away from the courses, but are reluctant to state these as learning outcomes because they are unable to “test” these outcomes.  However, any important skill or value can be assessed – even if there is a good deal of subjectivity involved in that assessment.  By stating these objectives as learning outcomes, faculty members can challenge themselves and their students to more clearly describe the dimensions of this learning.  Measurements of this learning may be through written reflections, observations of performance, or surveys of opinions.  These are perfectly valid assessment tools.

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