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Course SMURFs

Topics/tags: Teaching, assessment, silly, short

The other day, our department was divvying up the various tasks for members of our department. We got to the position of evaluation coordinator and started discussing the tasks associated with that role. I suggested that our coordinator might encourage the faculty in the department to develop a list of goals or outcomes for each class. As I was saying that, I realized I had forgotten what term is currently in vogue [1] , so I said something like goals, outcomes, SMURFs, whatever we call them these days [2]. Unfortunately, one of my colleagues asked me to explain the acronym. I admitted that I’d made up the acronym on the spur of the moment, but I also attempted to come up with an explanation for the acronym. I’m not quite sure what I said at the time, but I’ve decided that a SMURF is a Specific, Measurable, Useful, Relevant Factor for the class. That is,

SMURFs are Specific. When writing a SMURF, you should focus on the details of the class, rather than general issues. Not I will teach my students how to think algorithmically, which is a broad concept, but My students will learn how to use conditionals, loops, and sequencing to develop and express algorithms formally. Not I will teach my students to write better but "My students will learn how to use the twenty basic sentence patterns [3] to vary their writing and therefore write more clearly and compellingly [4].

SMURFs are Measurable. What’s the point of a student learning something that you can’t measure? [5]

SMURFs are Useful. That is SMURFs represent course factors that are useful to you or the students [6] in understanding

Finally, SMURFs are Relevant. That could mean that they are relevant to the particular class. It could suggest that they are relevant to the student. It could even imply that they are relevant to society. I’ll let you choose your own interpretation.

And there you have it. A brand new tool for reflecting on your classes. Don’t forget to include your course SMURFs before submitting that syllabus to the Dean’s office.

Postscript: While I did not spend deep thought on the five letters of the acronym, I did come up with other possibilities. S could stand for Significant rather than Specific. After all, no one wants to deal with insignificant factors. S could also stand for a different sense of specific, specific to the class, rather than applicable to other classes. M could stand for Meaningful. We would, of course, like our students to find meaning in what they learn and our faculty to find meaning in what they teach. But measurement seems to be at the heart of requirements to list goals and outcomes [7]. Hence, I felt it best to include some word meaning measurable in the acronym. Measurable is almost certainly the best choice. U could stand for Unique. Like the second sense of specific, Unique suggests that the SMURF is tied to the particular course. Finally, R could stand for Required. That is, we should focus on the learning factors we expect for every student, not just for some.

What about the F? Factor is the only term that came to mind.

Postscript: While Smurf is undoubtedly a registered trademark, SMURF is not. Trademarks only apply to particular domains (trades). I don’t think learning factors interfere with children’s toys or the animated films that advertise those toys.

[1] Yes, I realize that there’s a difference between learning goals and learning outcomes. Goals tend to be a bit more abstract (e.g., You will learn recursion while outcomes tend to be more concrete and detailed You will be able to use recursion in solving moderate-sized problems that require you to do something with each element of a list. One of the reasons that I listed both goals and outcomes is that I can never remember whether we want both are only one.

[2] No, I can’t always explain the things that my brain comes up with in the spur of the moment.

[3] A few of my colleagues use The Art of Styling Sentences, which describes twenty basic sentence patterns.

[4] In truth, I would not recommend the latter. In every class that I’ve taught, I’ve found that the students exhibit different levels of writing ability; what I help one student with might be different than what I’d help another with. In point of fact, I consider My students will learn to write better a fine factor.

[5] I believe that we do and should teach things that we cannot easily measure. I’m just echoing the repeated calls from our Dean’s office for measurable outcomes. Too many of the things that I care about don’t have natural measures and, in any case, the measures are often different for different students. I’ve already mentioned writing. How do you easily quantify the growth in writing we see in students over the semester? We should not measure sentence length or rely on computational readability metrics that typically ignore issues we care about, like style.

It’s not just writing. One of the goals of my introductory class is to get students used to working with people who think differently than they do and who may even have a different level of knowledge. How do I measure the transformation I see in a student who begins the semester asking, I don’t want other students to slow me down, can I just do everything on my own? and ends the semester as a fierce advocate of pair programming?

[6] Or, I suppose, the Dean’s office or external evaluators.

[7] And SMURFs.

Version 0.1 of 2018-09-06.