Ongoing Misperceptions About SLOs

Ever so often, someone writes a piece criticizing assessment in higher education. While a process like reaccreditation is a beast, some criticisms of it overlook the value of reviewing our courses and articulating what students should learn from them.

In “The Terrible Tedium of ‘Learning Outcomes,’ Gayle Greene expresses exasperation at the assessment process at Scripps. As someone who has experienced the reaccreditation process, I know it is quite the task. Greene takes aim at the inevitable request to make student learning outcomes measurable. For example, “Students will learn to recognize and construct well-formed arguments” becomes “Student recognizes well-formed argument, including recognition of argumentative structure, use of evidence, and a disciplinary framework. Student constructs such arguments.” After criticizing these types of revisions as “garbage” and “gobbledygook,” Greene contrasts the revised outcomes with that ostensibly should be the description of a course: “Wait a minute, I thought getting students to understand, feel, learn, appreciate, grasp the significance of, comprehend, and enjoy was sort of the point. No more, apparently.”

However, Greene misses the impact of measurable outcomes. The problem with an outcome like “Students will learn to recognize and construct well-formed arguments” is that “well-formed arguments” is subjective. While a group of faculty think they all agree on what passes for a well-formed argument, it is quite likely they do not, especially if they have never met together to discuss what constitutes a well-formed argument. We know this because students routinely complain about things being “important” in one course, only to find they are not “important” in another course. All a SLO asks you to do is to make your implicit criteria explicit. If these assumptions are not articulated for students, then how can students meet the expectation? And such assumptions have a far greater impact on students not familiar with the “hidden curriculum” of higher education, including first-generation students.

In addition, Greene creates an unnecessary either-or scenario, where SLOs eliminate other things that a course can accomplish for a student. Student learning outcomes do not represent everything that students will learn in a particular course, only what students will be evaluated on, which is why the need to be measurable. Despite our hopes and dreams, this often boils down to far less than what many of us think students should come away with from a class. Why? Because of cognitive load; there is a limit to what students can meaningfully process at any given time. So, we can focus on, say. 4-5 outcomes for a course that we will assess. Creating those measurable outcomes does not preclude us from also making our courses enjoyable. We can communicate the value of learning, appreciation and comprehension throughout our courses. We don’t even have to determine if those things are actually occurring (how would you measure joy in a course? would you want to?). We can communicate in other ways that these thing are, in fact, desirable in our courses and represent them in much better ways than a student learning outcome ever could.

When I was a faculty member, I found that many of my colleagues found it difficult to communicate the value of their courses and fields of study, especially if there were in the arts in sciences as compared to colleagues in business or STEM. They relied on the assumption that what they taught was understood to be valuable without having to explain why. But, without taking the time to explain, especially to people who are not well-versed in our subjects (oh, like students for starters), why what we do is important or significant virtually guarantees that people will not value it. That includes our students.

So while I empathize with faculty swept up in the re-accreditation process, I do take issue with the idea that faculty do not need to explain what students get out of our courses and determine if they are, in fact, getting those things out of our courses


Image by Francis from Pixabay

Gayle Greene. “The Terrible Tedium of ‘Learning Outcomes.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 4 Jan 2023.

Creative Commons License
Ongoing Misperceptions about SLOs by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: