On Learning Objectives: A Response to Jeff Noonan

Lecture circa 1400 (Getty)

Lecture circa 1400 (Getty)

Jeff Noonan wrote a great blog posing called “Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes.”I have called this a “response” but what it is really semi-random notes. This will be one of those postings that folks in education will be batting around for a while. It is seriously worth a look. I am very interested in learning objectives because they have been part of my career in education from the beginning. I started out in education support as a tutor, subbed in the k-12 system; worked in writing labs, taught English in community colleges in California and Washington; worked as an instructional designer and a college administrator, and in all of this work, learning objectives played a big role. Every grant I have worked on has asked for them. All of the quality assurance rubrics for developing or reviewing online classes ask for them. College administrators and faculty review course learning objectives to judge whether or not a course from another college is equivalent to a similar course at their college. Learning outcomes are as deeply ingrained into education as the lecture method of teaching. These are not arguments in favor of learning outcomes. In fact, I came from an experimental high school (Delta High, Orcutt, CA) where the students were given an opportunity to figure out what they were supposed to learn and worked out with an advisor to work out how they were to learn it. I don’t disagree with the “Ten Theses” – I just think that the document is not coming from the same education culture that most students are currently subjected to. The establishment objections to them would certainly be something like “How do we know if the student has learned to love thinking?” And can someone learn to love thinking and not have learned how to speak French or work out an algebra problem and still pass the class?

In the first thesis, Noonan writes “Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.” I get the spirit behind this, but there are college classes that really are just rote learning: memorizing formulae, the names of bones, etc. Experiences in a typical college that embody and exemplify teaching are rare. And this is the fault of the system, I am not sure how this thesis could be implemented without a huge, revolutionary over-haul of education.

The second thesis says that “True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom.” So there is that critical qualifier “true teaching” versus what ever is passing for teaching now-a-days. Deciding what constitutes “true” teaching and what that practice looks like in the day-to-day classroom seems to be the work of instructional design and teacher education (which is something that does not happen in higher education).

In the third thesis, we learn that “All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations.” Again, we have a qualifier “successful” teaching. All I can say is that if you do not have tenure, and your students have not mastered the body of knowledge you are supposed to teach and do not know how to apply it, you may not get tenure despite how much your students love to think. That said, I agree with the principle behind this, but we have to work on what really constitutes “successful teaching” and how to get there.

The fourth and fifth theses describe the love of thinking and critical thinking, and the fifth ends with the statement: “Learning outcomes confuse the ends (thinking) with the means (content and skills) and set out to measure how well the students are mastering the content and the methods.” I disagree with that. Learning outcomes only describe the content and methods. Learning outcomes avoid abstract unmeasurables like the “love of thinking.” How will Noonan know if I really love learning or am only faking it?

In the sixth thesis, Noonan says that learning outcomes “they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.” I think that describing what a student will get out of a class or a description of what is being taught does not have to exclude cognitive freedom and a love of thinking. If I am taking an Administrative Justice class called “Evidence,” it is helpful to know that students enrolled in the class will be able to identify what constitutes legally acceptable evidence and what does not. I know that a teacher can teach that course in such a way that that a love of thinking is cultivated. Eliminating learning outcomes won’t do that.

The seventh thesis says that what learning objectives “achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer.” I don’t think that telling the students, other faculty and institutions what skills and knowledge the students will gain from the course precludes a love of thinking. If students take an organic chemistry course, they had better learn organic chemistry. I would hope to god they took it from someone who can communicate the love of thinking that can happen in chemistry classes but ask any student – it rarely happens. Many classes are taught in a particular way because that is how the instructor learned it. Some classes are, in fact, used to haze students out of the field in favor of more “serious” students (i.e. students with better rote memorization and hoop jumping skills). This is why there are so few minorities and women in STEM.

In the eighth thesis, Noonan says that “In their belief that only that which measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects.” This does not necessarily have to be the case: one can write learning objectives in such a way that they address practices, relationships and activities. No one is saying that the only thing one will learn in a class will only be found in the learning outcomes. Again, this sounds like an instructional design issue and not a learning objectives issue.

The ninth thesis claims that “learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education. They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers.” To a certain extent I agree with this, but we have to also ask, why are students going to college? There are a number of studies that say that students are going to college to get better jobs and to make more money. If a student majors in philosophy, the odds are that they are going to go into law, government, or healthcare. It would be a rare student (or independently wealthy one) who would say that the only reason they are going to college is for the love of thinking or even learning for learning’s sake.

And finally, the tenth thesis says that there is no clear pedagogical outcome to learning objectives and that they are a fad. I have heard this said before and yet, the first time I ran into a discussion of learning objectives in a college was in the United States in 1985.

I remember my first Latin class at UC Berkeley. My impression was that this was supposed to be a top school. On the first day, the instructor lead us in reciting verb conjugations as a class in unison. This was to help us remember the conjugations via rote memorization. The instructor said that it was the only way to do it. I left that class and never went back. Fast forward a few years and I was at Sonoma State. The instructor used an older textbook and brought in texts for us to translate together. A few times, he brought in texts from colleagues in Europe that had never been translated into English. We learned all the grammar that we needed by working on actual projects, but to this day, I still run into Latin teachers who balk at teaching from original texts because that is not the way that they learned Latin. My point is that both classes had similar learning objectives but the design of the course was different. I am sure the students at Berkeley learned something of Latin grammar, but I am not so sure they would have learned to love to think.

One of the issues that learning objectives seeks to address is dealing with students who are unprepared for advanced courses. Jeff Noonan would not want a student in his class who could not write a basic essay. Who is going to provide the student with those skills? How will the student know that they are prepared for the academic rigor of advanced classes? Is love enough? I understand what he is saying about teaching and the love of thinking, but I think learning outcomes can do some important things:

  • Communicates to students the requirements and expectations of the course
  • Lets new teachers know what should be covered in a class
  • Lets faculty and administrators know if a course from another institution is similar to their course
  • Allows instructional designers to help faculty find materials and methods that the teacher may not have been aware of to help them effectively teach the content

What I find ironic about the innovators in education is that the only voices that get heard are the ones that have benefitted most from the system. The ones who get to judge the innovations in education are the ones who are most invested in the old ways of doing things. That is why one can walk into a university classroom and participate in a system that has not changed since the 11th century.

I want to encourage the readers of this blog to check out Jeff Noonan’s post. Whatever you think about learning objectives, his posting and the references are a great contribution to the discussion.

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