Outcomes: Scaffolding student success

| March 11, 2020 in Higher Education
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My colleagues and I often chaffed under the stress of needing to get ready for our classes while attending the dreaded college-required professional development sessions on “Outcomes” designed to comply with accreditation. We were offered little more than college-dictated Educationese required inclusion in our syllabi.

Most of the outcomes were far too broad and vague to be measurable, and I began to daydream about how to make these days have some merit. I started to muse about outcomes. I needed a definition beyond what’s left at the end of something.

Specifically, what is a useable learning outcome? What would meaningful outcomes look like? Linda Nilson tells us that learning outcomes are what we want our students to be able to do by the end of our course. Therefore, it makes sense to think about designing meaningful course-specific outcomes by looking at the desired end and working backwards, determining the building blocks needed to reach those goals.

Patricia Cross stated the sole purpose of teaching is learning. This does not mean the teacher is the singular path to learning. In fact, learning often occurs best when the wise teacher gets out of the way to allow it to happen organically. Conversely and sadly, there can be a great deal of teaching with little, to no, learning.

I felt myself in the later position more than I would like to admit, working so hard while my students expended little energy. I was expending the lion’s share of classroom energy. I wondered how to flip this energy grid, so the students would become the primary energy consumers.

Learning scientists tell us that deep learning is not easy, it takes effort. Effort = expenditure of energy. So, if my students spent little energy, and learning consumes lots of energy, then the ratio of teaching to learning was seriously off-balance in my classrooms. I was doing so much teaching that was not resulting in a proportional amount of learning. I realized I needed to become the classroom learning facilitator.

I daydreamed about my ideal class with students learning. Teachers often believe we are the keepers of knowledge and only from our mouths may students learn. We’re the rock stars, dancing as fast as we can in front of the class, exhausted at the end of the day. And, while rock stars often get glowing student reviews, studies have shown students often mastered less than students in classrooms with methods focusing on learning outcomes rather than what the teacher teaches.

Sound outcomes contain three statements:

  1. how the outcome will be measured;
  2. what the conditions will be for demonstrating the outcome;
  3. and, the criteria for evaluating the student’s performance of the outcome.

How the outcome is measured might be stated in terms like; define or compute. The conditions for measurement might include; speeches, portfolios, or maps. Finally, the criteria for evaluating are the rubrics developed to measure progress.

There are cognitive, psychomotor, affective, social, and ethical outcomes; however, I am only examining cognitive outcomes. Bloom’s taxonomy remains an excellent framework for developing cognitive outcomes. These cognitive processes begin with knowledge. Without knowledge, students have no material with which to construct an end result.

Parroting new information in order to remember is the first rung. This might be coupled with comprehension, the second learning process, where the student is able to express the information in their own words. The third rung is application, using newly acquired information in unique situations. The fourth step analyzes the new information understanding how the components relate. Synthesis follows as students use isolated components creating new skills or products. The student reaches the top of the cognitive structure and is able to see from a new vantage, evaluating the relevancy of this learning.

It is important to note that outcomes have little merit without motivated students. Maslow’s hierarchy of need offers an excellent frame for motivation – beginning with the subfloor of meeting physiological needs and safety concerns, moving to a sense of belonging, leading to increased self-esteem, and culminating with self-actualization.

I am able to address each in my classrooms, creating environments with little effort that are physically comfortable, a safe space emotionally and physically, with collaborative activities increasing belongingness, giving constructive and meaningful feedback that increases self-esteem, and encouraging students to design their paths to uniquely defined success leading to self-actualization.

The principles of Bloom’s learning ladder coupled with the scaffolding of human/student motivations in Maslow’s research integrate learning and motivation producing my dream classroom.

The learning outcomes were supporting my course redesign. I reviewed assignments, assessments, and classroom strategies. If I found an activity or evaluative tool having little connection to the learning outcomes, I eliminated them, creating other activities better aligned with outcomes. I limited the number of outcomes so I could measure each and offer timely feedback so students had a very transparent view of what it would take to be successful.

My class gradually became far less about how much material I was able to cover than about how much progress students were making toward a final goal of mastery. This sometimes led to decreasing the amount of content I had assumed necessary simply because the textbook offered X number of chapters.

I kept in mind the BIG question, “What do I want my students to be able to do when they walk away from my course?”

Now, a warning! This outcome-based, learning-centered environment is often noisy. I have had one or two neighboring professors, request a room change due to the enthusiastic discussions and sometimes raucous laughter emanating from my students’ engagement with each other and the course principles.

I once had a provost, invited to visit student end-of-term presentations, become so engaged with the students and their learning that she remained for the entire class rather than the few minutes she had intended.

I’ll also warn that you must be prepared for changes in yourself. Motivation is infectious. The more motivated I became to create a sacred space for my students to learn, the more motivated they became to learn, which in turn reenergized me. I had found my teacher fountain of youth. The energy grid was teeming and flowing all over the place, back and forth from me, to students, to outsiders. I went home at night, not exhausted, but energized.

So, I guess I’ll express gratitude for those many tedious and painful college “Outcome” in-services for boring me into daydreaming and taking action.