Now that I am teaching at Rutgers, I have to prepare, or revise, the syllabi for my courses twice a year. Right near the top of each of these we are required to list Learning Objectives, and Learning Outcomes. And I have been hearing from near and far that this second term, “learning outcomes” is all the rage in evaluating college departments and divisions. What, evaluators are asking, is the student supposed to gain by taking this class, how does that add up with the other courses s/he is taking to yield a skill set that is the actual developmental and technical gain that goes along with the piece of paper handed out at graduation. In a way this is a financial question — if a student is paying X dollars and committing Y years to a program, what can s/he expect to take away from it? In another sense it seems to me of a piece with testing in secondary school — wanting concrete results to measure in order to see how well a school is functioning.
Since this sort of evaluation is going on all over higher education, one might wonder how a similar rubric would be used in secondary education. I remember years ago as my boys were about to enter elementary school a wise friend told me that educational fads did not have much effect in those years, since the teachers have the clear goal of getting students to master the three Rs — they are to leave second grade with those skills. That, along with getting along with other kids in class, is the clear learning outcome for first and second grade. But what happens after that?
Having just spent some time looking at the new CC standards, I see all sorts of learning goal, steps on the way students are expected to master. Perhaps teachers know and understand all of those goals, but I guarantee you that parents do not. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a series of Parent-Teacher nights in which the end zone, the goal line, was mapped out. Here is where we hope to get your student by the end of the semester, the year, by graduation. That way a parent would not just be on a student’s back about this assignment or grade, but would have a sense of where that step fit in a larger arc, and might even decide, for example, that a family trip to Williamsburg or the Lincoln Home, accomplished that step as well as three days in class.
If we have clear goals we should be able to map many different paths to reaching them.