Beyond learning outcomes

What we teach, what a student learns, what we assess This is a slide deck for a talk I’m giving today, at a faculty workshop, on the subject of learning outcomes.

I think that well-considered learning outcomes can be really helpful when planning and designing learning activities, especially where there is a need to assess learning. They can help keep a learning designer focused, and to remember to ensure that assessment activities actually make a positive contribution to learning. They can also be helpful to teachers while teaching, as a framework to keep them on track (if they wish to remain on track).  However, that’s about it. Learning outcomes are not useful when applied to bureaucratic ends, they are very poor descriptors of what learning actually happens, as a rule, and they are of very little (if any) use to students under most circumstances (there are exceptions – it’s a design issue, not a logical flaw).

The big point of my talk, though, is that we should be measuring what students have actually learned, not whether they have learned what we think we have taught, and that the purpose of everything we do should be to support learning, not to support bureaucracy.

I frame this in terms of the relationships between:

  • what we teach (what we actually teach, not just what we think we are teaching, including stuff like attitudes, beliefs, methods of teaching, etc),
  • what a student learns in the process (an individual student, not students as a whole), and
  • what we assess (formally and summatively, not necessarily as part of the learning process).

There are many things that we teach that any given student will not learn, albeit that (arguably) we wouldn’t be teaching at all if learning were not happening for someone. Most students get a small subset of that. There are also many things that we teach without intentionally teaching, not all of them good or useful.

There are also very many things that students learn that we do not teach, intentionally or otherwise. In fact, it is normal for us to mandate this as part of a learning design: any mildly creative or problem-solving/inquiry-oriented activity will lead to different learning outcomes for every learner. Even in the most horribly regimented teaching contexts, students are the ones that connect everything together, and that’s always going to include a lot more than what their teachers teach.

Similarly, there are lots of things that we assess that we do not teach, even with great constructive alignment. For example, the students’ ability to string a sentence together tends to be not just a prerequisite but something that is actively graded in typical assessments.

My main points are that, though it is good to have a teaching plan (albeit that it should be flexible,  reponsive to student needs, and should accommodate serendipity)learning :

  • students should be participants in planning outcomes and
  • we should assess what students actually learn, not what we think we are teaching.

From a learning perspective, there’s less than no point in summatively judging what learners have not learned. However, that’s exactly what most institutions actually do. Assessment should be about how learners have positively changed, not whether they have met our demands.

This also implies that students should be participants in the planning and use of learning outcomes: they should be able to personalize their learning, and we should recognize their needs and interests. I use andragogy to frame this, because it is relatively uncontroversial, is easily understood, and doesn’t require people to change everything in their world view to become better teachers, but I could have equally used quite a large number of other models. Connectivism, Communities of Practice, and most constructivist theories, for instance, force us to similar conclusions.

I suggest that appreciative inquiry may be useful as an approach to assessment, inasmuch as the research methodology is purpose-built to bring about positive change, and its focus on success rather than failure makes sense in a learning context.

I also suggest the use of outcome mapping (and its close cousin, outcome harvesting) as a means of capturing unplanned as well as planned outcomes. I like these methods because they only look at changes, and then try to find out what led to those changes. Again, it’s about evaluation rather than judgment.

DT&L2018 spotlight presentation: The Teaching Gestalt

The teaching gestalt  presentation slides (PDF, 9MB)

This is my Spotlight Session from the 34th Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, at Wisconsin Madison, August 8th, 2018. Appropriately enough, I did this online and at a distance thanks to my ineptitude at dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration. Unfortunately my audio died as we moved to the Q&A session so, if anyone who was there (or anyone else) has any questions or observations, do please post them here! Comments are moderated.

The talk was concerned with how online learning is fundamentally different from in-person learning, and what that means for how (or even whether) we teach, in the traditional formal sense of the word.

Teaching is always a gestalt process, an emergent consequence of the actions of many teachers, including most notably the learners themselves, which is always greater than (and notably different from) the sum of its parts. This deeply distributed process is often masked by the inevitable (thanks to physics in traditional classrooms) dominance of an individual teacher in the process. Online, the mask falls off. Learners invariably have both far greater control and far more connection with the distributed gestalt. This is great, unless institutional teachers fight against it with rewards and punishments, in a pointless and counter-productive effort to try to sustain the level of control that is almost effortlessly attained by traditional in-person teachers, and that is purely a consequence of solving problems caused by physical classroom needs, not of the needs of learners. I describe some of the ways that we deal with the inherent weaknesses of in-person teaching especially relating to autonomy and competence support, and observe how such pedagogical methods are a solution to problems caused by the contingent side effects of in person teaching, not to learning in general.

The talk concludes with some broad characterization of what is different when teachers choose to let go of that control.  I observe that what might have been Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest creation was his effective learning process, without which none of the rest of his creations could have happened. I am hopeful that now, thanks to the connected world that we live in, we can all learn like Leonardo, if and only if teachers can learn to let go.

Strategies for successful learning at AU

Earlier today I responded to a prospective student who was, amongst other things, seeking advice on strategies for success on a couple of our self-paced programming courses. My response was just a stream of consciousness off the top of my head but I think it might be useful to others. Here, then, with some very light editing to remove references to specific courses, are a few fairly random thoughts on how to succeed on a self-paced online programming course (and, for the most part, other courses) at Athabasca University. In no particular order:

  • Try to make sure that people close to you know what you are doing and, ideally, are supportive. Other people can really help, not just for the mechanical stuff but for the emotional support. Online learning, especially the self-paced form we use, can feel a bit isolating at times, but there are lots of ways to close the gap and they aren’t all found in the course materials and processes. Find support wherever you can.
  • Make a schedule and try to keep to it, but don’t blame yourself if your deadlines slip a bit here and there – just adjust the plan. The really important thing is that you should feel in control of the process. Having such control is one of the huge benefits of our way of teaching, but you need to take ownership of the process yourself in order to experience the benefits.
  • If the course provides forums or other social engagement try to proactively engage in them. Again, other people really help.
  • You will have way more freedom than those in traditional classrooms, who have to follow a teacher simply because of the nature of physics. However, that freedom is a two-edged sword as you can sometimes be swamped with choices and not know which way to go. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. But do take advantage of the freedom. Set your own goals. Look for the things that excite you and explore further. Take breaks if you are getting tired. Play. Take control of the learning process and enjoy the ride.
  • Enjoy the challenges. Sometimes it will be hard, and you should expect that, especially in programming courses like these. Programming can be very frustrating at times – after 35 years of programming I can still spend days on a problem that turns out to involve a misplaced semi-colon! Accept that, and accept that even the most intractable problems will eventually be solved (and it is a wonderful feeling when you do finally get it to work). Make time to sleep on it. If you’re stuck, ask for help.
  • Get your work/life/learning balance right. Be realistic in your aspirations and expect to spend many hours a week on this, but make sure you make time to get away from it.
  • Keep a learning journal, a reflective diary of what you have done and how you have addressed the struggles, even if the course itself doesn’t ask for one. There are few more effective ways to consolidate and connect your learning than to reflect on it, and it can help to mark your progress: good to read when your motivation is flagging.
  • Get used to waiting for responses and find other things to learn in the meantime. Don’t stop learning because you are waiting – move on to something else, practice something you have already done, or reflect on what you have been doing so far.
  • Programming is a performance skill that demands constant and repeated practice. You just need to do it, get it wrong, do it again, and again, and again, until it feels like second nature. In many ways it is like learning a musical instrument or maybe even driving. It’s not something you can learn simply by reading or by being told, you really have to immerse yourself in doing it. Make up your own challenges if you run out of things to do.
  • Don’t just limit yourself to what we provide. Find forums and communities with appropriate interests. I am a big fan of StackOverflow.com for help and inspiration from others, though relevant subreddits can be useful and there are many other sites and systems dedicated to programming. Find one or two that make sense to you. Again, other people can really help.

Online learning can be great fun as long as you are aware of the big differences, primarily relating to control and personal agency. Our role is to provide a bit of structure and a supportive environment to enable you to learn, rather than to tell you stuff and make you do things, which can be disconcerting at first if you are used to traditional classroom learning. This puts more pressure on you, and more onus on you to organize and manage your own learning, but don’t ever forget that you are not ever really alone – we are here to help.

In summary, I think it really comes down to three big things, all of which are really about motivation, and all of which are quite different when learning online compared to face-to-face:

  1. Autonomy – you are in control, but you must take responsibility for your own learning. You can always delegate control to us (or others) when the going gets hard or choices are hard to make, but you are always free to take it back again, and there will be no one standing over you making you do stuff apart from yourself.
  2. Competence – there are few things more satisfying than being able to do more today than you could do yesterday. We provide some challenges and we try to keep them difficult-but-achievable at every stage along the way, but it is a great idea for you to also seek your own challenges, to play, to explore, to discover, especially if the challenges we offer are too difficult or too boring. Reflection can help a lot with this, as a means to recognize what, how, and why you have learned.
  3. Relatedness – never forget the importance of other people. You don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to do so (that’s another freedom we offer), but it is at the very least helpful to think about how you belong in our community, your own community, and the broader community of learners and programmers, and how what and how you are learning can affect others (directly or indirectly).

This advice is by no means comprehensive! If you have other ideas or advice, or things that have worked for you, or things that you disagree with, do feel free to share them in the comments.