According to the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, learning outcomes are statements about “expected knowledge, skills, attitudes, competencies, and habits of mind that students are expected to acquire at an institution of higher learning.” Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board explains learning outcomes as “…a body of knowledge and skills for an academic discipline…” Regardless of where specific learning outcomes originate from (instructor specific, department specific, common for the entire institution or even a state), they are the driving force behind the course content development.
There are three basic questions an instructor, especially a recently hired one, should be asking while preparing to teach a course: “What are the learning outcomes for the course?” “How am I going to teach these learning outcomes to my students?” “How will I know that the students have learned and mastered the learning outcomes?”
Here are a few key strategies an instructor should consider:
Long-term and short-term planning are frequently used terms. When talking about instructional planning, most often people refer to daily lesson plans or short-term planning. Internet is flooded with lesson plan templates, lesson plan ideas, lesson planning strategies, tools, suggestions, do’s and don’ts. However, a more important type of instructional planning, long-term planning for the entire semester. Long-term planning allows an instructor to see the entire semester as a whole, envision how different learning modules and instructional unites fit together, organize all of the course content in a cohesive, meaningful way.
- Scope and Sequence: In the beginning, an instructor should review the learning outcomes and decides how he/she will be delivering instruction to meet them.
- Learning outcomes are usually broad, so in the planning phase an instructor has an opportunity to narrow some concepts down, be more specific, determine what concrete information and content will be presented in the course.
- Some instructors may create a matrix, a grid, or a table with the list of learning outcomes and corresponding course content, for example, textbook chapters, lectures, activities, assignments, and even assessments.
- Instructional Outline: It is similar to the scope and sequence in content, but is more structured, includes more details, and usually looks like a calendar. An instructional outline basically maps out the semester with daily or weekly assignments, topics, activities and assessments.
- Some instructor create very general instructional outlines that may list topics, chapters, or instructional units.
- Others prefer more detailed and concrete instructional outlines that include information about in-class activities, homework, and even directions and instructions for students on how to complete certain assignments.
Both approaches to planning a semester have their advantages. A more general instructional outline allows more flexibility and gives an instructor an opportunity to slow or speed up parts of the instruction, add assignments and activities, make changes to the course content without revising the entire scope and sequence of the course. A more detailed instructional outline takes “the mystery” out of the course and allows both the instructor and the students to preview the upcoming topics, activities, and assignments. It encourages and supports students’ independent work because students can plan and work ahead.
Choosing Course Materials
Planning a semester cannot happen effectively without having selected specific course materials such as textbooks, supplemental readings, on-line component, and any handouts, assignment sheets, etc…
- Common Textbook: Many colleges or individual departments adopt a common textbook to be used for each specific course. Some departments offer instructors a choice between two or three approved texts. Typically, an adoption of a common textbook is done by a taskforce comprised of several faculty members.
- Serving on a textbook adoption committee: is a commitment and an investment in both time and effort. The members of the committee will meet several times to discuss what they are looking for in a common textbook, set selection criteria, and expectations. If you’re serving on a selection committee, it’s ideal to try and match-up your department’s learning outcomes to the final text selections. This offers an easy way for score or rate the texts in consideration and provides all faculty members with an easy alignment upon implementation on how the course materials meet the stated learning objectives.
- Faculty who are not serving on a textbook committee may still have an opportunity to influence the decision and contribute to the adoption process through formal and informal feedback. Make sure to provide feedback on how certain materials meet learning outcome criteria and ask for a learning outcome mapping to any newly adopted texts or supplementary material.
- Individual Choice: Not every department or institution of higher learning uses common textbooks. The opportunity to select individual teaching materials and textbooks is viewed as an important part of academic freedom. If you are selecting your own course materials make sure they not only fit your teaching style and methodology but can clearly be mapped back to the course learning outcomes. A rubric or matric is often a good way to show how a specific text addresses key course learning objectives.
Assessment of Learning Outcomes
Planning what assignments and assessments to administer usually happens at the time of creating an instructional outline for the course. Long gone are the days when a student’s course grade was based on two assessments: a midterm and a final. Best practices and trends in education suggest that regular, purposeful, and targeted assessment provides a better picture of students’ progress and allows instructor to evaluate students’ learning more accurately.
- Matrix: A simple way to ensure that the instructor is assessing students’ mastery of the course learning outcomes would be a matrix where one column lists all the course learning outcomes, another column lists topics, chapters, lectures, assignments that will address each learning outcome, and the third column includes assessment instruments and tools that will allow the instructor to evaluate and document students’ mastery of each learning outcomes.
- Grading Rubrics: Grading rubrics can be a very effective tool to keep the learning outcomes on the forefront of the assessment and to maintain consistency of grading. Some departments might have grading recommendations or grade guidelines, while others leave that up to individual instructors. Here are some helpful tips on how to approach a development of a grading rubric.
- Review the learning outcomes and reference them frequently while developing a rubric.
- Start with a big picture: create general categories like “essay organization” or “content and idea development” or “grammar and mechanics”
- Create a rubric template that can be modified for different assignments. For example, an essay rubric template might have a category to evaluate the use of external sources or documentation in MLA format among other criteria. However, this part of the rubric can be omitted or edited out when modifying a rubric for an essay without sources.
- Try to incorporate language from the learning outcomes into the grading rubric as much as possible.
Countless variables affect instruction and learning: there is no one size fits all solution to effective teaching. However, one characteristic of sound pedagogy remains constant and that is the focus on students and their learning. Course learning outcomes can be used to guide the development of the course content, the selection of the materials, and the development of evaluation instruments.