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Prospective students face the difficult task of deciding whether or not a college degree is worth the cost. To deliver the best possible value to students, institutions are looking for ways to improve student outcomes. A perspective shift from instructor-focused content to a student-centered approach can be the starting point to ultimately improving outcomes.
For instructors, this shift can prove difficult to navigate, as it requires moving away from curriculum delivery as the sole or primary focus and moving towards a focus on the expectations and desired results of the students. This highlights an important difference — one between learning objectives and student outcomes — and is central to creating more enduring, impactful learning. By focusing on student outcomes in addition to learning objectives, institutions and educators can involve students in the learning process, resulting in increased motivation and higher achievement.
Learning Objectives vs.Student Outcomes: Why the Distinction Matters
While learning objectives and student outcomes may seem similar and even synonymous, the key difference lies in the target audience of each statement. Learning objectives describe the actions the instructor aims to take, whereas student outcomes describe the results of the student experience. In other words, student outcomes refer to the knowledge or skills that a student gains as a result of an applied learning objective. Student outcomes can also be described as learning outcomes, as a result of learning objectives.
Learning Objectives center the instructor
Student Outcomes center the student
Learning Objectives are what the instructor intends to teach
Student Outcomes are how the learner will demonstrate achievement
Learning Objective Example:
We will discuss the varying character tropes across Shakespeare’s most popular comedies.
Student Outcome Example:
By the end of unit 2 of An Introduction to Shakespeare, students will be able to analyze and compare common character tropes across popular comedies.
Stating the goals of a course, unit, or lesson as a student outcome involves the student in the process and clearly states the expectations, which can be helpful to set the student up for success from the very start.
Tying Learning Objectives to Student Outcomes
Establishing learning objectives is the first step to drafting concise, measurable, and impactful student outcomes. In writing a learning objective, you establish the actions you will take as the instructor to deliver student outcomes. However, because learning objectives tend to emphasize instructor actions and can alienate the student, considering how you can alter your objective to best center the student is a key step whenmoving from objective to outcome.
Student outcomes should be:
- Specific: students should understand what they are expected to demonstrate or produce as a result of the learning process.
- Attainable: the outcome is a reasonable expectation for students, given their level of knowledge and preparation
- Realistic: the objective can be achieved within the established timeframe
- Active and Observable: students will know whether or not they have achieved the objective
- Measureable: students have a way of measuring their success
Given the above parameters, it’s clear that language and wording of student outcomes are paramount. To create a more lasting and actionable level of learning, instructors can use language that encourages students to strive toward a place of synthesis, evaluation, and creation, in addition to knowledge and comprehension. The verbs that instructors use in their learning outcomes can inspire this kind of thinking.
When writing student outcomes, consider language derived from Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives:
- Knowledge– to know, remember, and recite facts and concepts
- Comprehension– to understand and explain
- Application– to apply learned knowledge or skills to a novel situation
- Analysis– breaking information or concepts into its parts
- Synthesis– to integrate ideas, create something new, or propose a plan of action
- Evaluation– to judge the value of information or ideas
- Creation– combining parts to make a new whole
Incorporating language from the higher ends of Bloom’s Taxonomy – synthesize, evaluate, and create – will set higher expectations for student outcomes and enable students to visualize the products of their learning.
Improving Student Outcomes for More Valuable Learning Experiences
By considering the factors impacting a student’s ability to achieve a learning outcome, instructors can intentionally incorporate strategies to address these factors and, in turn, bolster student achievement. Many great instructors have the ability to blend teaching strategies and their pedagogical approach to reach diverse learning styles.
For example, instructors who provide opportunities for self-paced learning will find that many students thrive with extra time for processing and applying their learning. All students learn, process information, and complete assignments at varying paces; allowing students to learn on a flexible timeline relieves them of the pressure they might feel when up against a strict deadline. As you allow students this flexible time, however, it is also important to guide them as they learn to self-monitor and manage their time. The quality of learning time is just as impactful as the duration; some students may require more guidance than others as they learn to navigate a self-paced learning schedule.
In addition to allowing for a flexible learning schedule, instructors might also consider modeling and encouraging a growth mindset in their students. A growth mindset is defined by an individual’s belief that they can improve upon something that is difficult for them; in contrast, someone with a fixed mindset believes that they are defined by their current abilities and unable to grow, change, or improve upon themselves.
A student with a growth mindset might think, “Math is hard for me. If I dedicate extra time to studying, attend office hours, and take some practice tests, I can improve my grade from last semester.”
A student with a fixed mindset might think, “Math is hard for me. I’m not very good at it, and my brain is better at literature and languages. I’ll just get through this requirement and then I won’t have to do another math course.”
Chances are you’ve encountered students with a fixed mindset. They may have even had additional barriers to accessing education. Social stereotypes can also impact a student’s mindset. Even girls with a strong growth mindset in education may find that their mindsets become more fixed when studying STEM disciplines. Women are less represented in STEM careers than men. Because such stereotypes are often introduced early, they become more difficult to combat as students grow older.
One of the most impactful ways to instill a growth mindset in a student with a stubbornly fixed mindset is to have them experience success as a result of their own hard work and dedication. Students often find this success through inquiry-based learning; or, a process in which students take the lead in their learning and explore topics through high-level questioning and investigation. For inquiry-based learning to be successful, however, students need to have first established a strong basis of knowledge from instruction-based learning. Therefore, a strategic blend of both instruction- and inquiry-based learning is the most likely to encourage a growth mindset in students.
*It is important to note that leading an inquiry-based classroom is inherently more difficult to navigate than an instructional-based one; interested educators might consider undergoing training or professional development to help incorporate inquiry into their classrooms.
Measuring Learning Outcomes
You’ll probably want to measure the success of your learning outcomes. One way to do this is by trying to identify any changes in students' performance on assessments — both formative and summative. Formative assessments can be used throughout a course for ongoing measurement of student understanding, areas of confusion, and readiness to move on. Formative assessments can come in the form of quizzes, surveys, class discussions, debates, written responses to prompts, or in-class polling with tools like iClicker. You can track student progress across formative assessments, both as feedback for their own instruction and as useful insights for summative assessments; to do so, consider using analytics provided by courseware platforms like Achieve.
The cumulative summative assessment should be aligned with the stated learning outcomes of the course or unit. In this way, students will not be surprised by the summative assessment, as they will have already aligned their expectations based on the learning outcomes. It is a mark of truly student-centered instruction when students feel confident, capable, and prepared for the summative assessment, as a result of well-established and communicated learning outcomes.
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