With a high school student about to enter 12th grade, we are finding colorful mailings from colleges in our mailbox every day. It’s a competitive market for students, and college marketing offices need to make their institutions attractive.
As I was sifting through the pile, something struck me about how schools are trying to appeal to my rising senior. For over 20 years now, education at all levels has been driven by an accountability ethos. This is intended to ensure schools’ accountability for their quality by defining student learning outcomes (SLOs) and reporting students’ achievement of those outcomes. In an age of rising education costs and the demand for value for money (and for institutions that want to benefit from federal government financial support) this is considered to be good for students. And the definition and assessment of SLOs has become a centerpiece of accreditation standards.
The funny thing is, I’ve never yet met a student who cares much about student learning outcomes. And if students did care about them, you would think the college marketers would have cottoned on to that fact by now. But look at some of the messages in the mailings we’ve been receiving…
“A college experience built around your definition of success.”
This doesn’t sound like a college that is pushing its SLOs as a selling point. It is about the student finding meaning in the college experience.
How about this student quote from another mailer…
“I’ve had professors who truly care about what I am doing and how I’m moving forward in my life.”
I doubt you will find a requirement for ‘professors who truly care’ in your accreditor’s standards.
“Best college town, extraordinary college experience.”
Again with the ‘experience.’ Again, not a sales pitch based on outcomes.
“Your (college name) story starts here.”
College as a story – something filled with experiences and will create memories and meaning.
“The question isn’t where you want to go. It’s how to get there” – an explicitly anti-outcome statement.
And finally, my favorite:
“You’ll never be bored in Buffalo.”
My point is that in the push for accountability and compliance, we can become too focused on outcomes that students may not be very interested in, and not pay attention to the quality of their experience. When we focus only on results, we can forget that what makes an education memorable is the location, the personalities, the interactions, the participation in the process, the experience of undergoing all that. A quality education should be rich in experiences, should encourage personal growth, should open us up to different ways of understanding the world. This is all very difficult to express as a measurable learning outcome.
Does this matter? I think it does for several reasons.
- What does the grade for your course represent? Is it only the final result, the achievement of the outcome? Most teachers want to include assignments, projects, class participation and contribution, and quizzes – formative activities on the way to the goal – as part of the final grade. This is because teachers know that an education is not simply about the destination but also about engagement in the process. Students who fail to engage in the class but nonetheless achieve the learning outcome may have ‘succeeded’ in meeting an outcome, but may have failed to gain an education.
- When can you consider that a class ‘worked?’ An education professor criticized teachers she observed who thought their class had ‘worked,’ because they failed to clearly define and assess an outcome for that class. But perhaps teachers know that ‘working’ can also mean having students engage in a process, in activities that enrich them in ways that are hard to measure – none of which is interesting to an outcomes-only oriented observer.
- What is important when designing an educational program? Striving to comply with accreditation standards, many schools are focusing heavily on teaching to and assessing outcomes. An equal focus on how to get there – the journey too, not just the destination – should be taken seriously by schools and those who hold them accountable.
- Is online learning just as good as in-person learning? From a purely outcomes point of view, maybe. Good online learning can of course be rich in experiences. But is it possible for good online learning to be as rich and engaging as good in-person learning? Personally I doubt it.
And here comes the caveat, of course. I’m not arguing that establishing and assessing outcomes is not important. Clearly if education is going to consume students’ resources – their money, time, and effort – they want to know that they will gain knowledge and skills from it. I am concerned though that – as in many areas of life – the pendulum can swing too far in one direction. I’m arguing that it ought to swing back some way. College marketers, teachers, and students have understood this all along.