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Measurable course learning outcomes

In preparation for the forthcoming reaccreditation, the Dean’s office has started asking us to send our course syllabi to our academic support assistants [1]. If I understand, they worry that the accreditors may want to see course syllabi, so they want to have them on hand for those requests [2]. To help, they’ve sent out a set of guidelines [3] that they recommend we use, but don’t require [4]. And, given the state of education today, one of the first things they suggest is that we provide Learning outcomes: Measurable goals are a central feature of a course.

While I haven’t drunk the kool aid [5] of measurable course learning outcomes, I do think it’s worthwhile to try to follow recommendations [6]. So I’ve been thinking about learning outcomes. In fact, I always think about learning outcomes; I end each of my classes with a review of what students might have learned.

At first glance, measurable learning outcomes make sense. They represent the things you expect all students to take away from the course and they suggest that we have a responsibility to measure those things so that we know whether or not students are, in fact, learning what we think they do. But measurable learning outcomes bother me. This musing is my attempt to think more carefully through why they bother me.

Include five to eight measurable learning outcomes in your syllabus. I hear it from my administrators. I hear it from colleagues whose opinions I value. The College probably hears it from accreditors. But the requirement bothers me. Let’s consider some reasons why.

First, I find that many outcomes are not measurable or at least not naturally measurable. Our Mission Statement [7] notes that

The College aims to graduate individuals who can think clearly, who can speak and write persuasively and even eloquently, who can evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas, who can acquire new knowledge, and who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.

As far as I can tell, we’ve spent a decade just trying to figure out how to measure write persuasively and even eloquently. We haven’t even started to explore [use] their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good. But our inability to measure these things does not mean that they aren’t valuable. In fact, I’d say that these broad goals are more valuable than many of the things that we can measure.

In fact, even though we can’t measure these kinds of things, I would say that our classes are small enough that most faculty can say that they see changes in their students, even if they don’t explicitly measure them. Our students read better, think better, and argue better after most classes. We’ve seen the student’s work [8] at the beginning of the semester. We see their work at the end of the semester. Students change [9].

That’s not to say that some outcomes aren’t measurable. We can, for example, measure students’ ability to write a program or to express a non-trivial thesis. I would say that most students enter the first CS course unable to write a program in Scheme and leave the course able to write a program in Scheme. It’s clear that many students enter Grinnell with difficulty writing a compelling thesis. By the time they leave, most have learned how to write much more interesting theses, guided by documents like Erik Simpson’s [Five ways of looking at a thesis]( [10].

However, from my perspective, those outcomes are less interesting than the broader outcomes. Write a program in Scheme is one component of Think like a computer scientist [11]; write a non-trivial thesis is one component of write persuasively and even eloquently. If we focus in the syllabus on the things we can measure, we may lose the more important things that we cannot so easily measure.

Second, I’ve had bad experiences with College-wide measurements. In measuring writing, Grinnell first tried evaluating student papers from their first course and from a senior-year course. But we didn’t always gather the assignments. In a few cases, we observed that students went from writing tight five-paragraph essays in their first course to disjoint, twenty-page essays in their last course. But when we talked to faculty about some of those longer essays, we discovered that the goal was often not to write a coherent essay, but to record a series of observations or ideas.

A subsequent attempt asked faculty to evaluate a variety of characteristics of student papers on a five-point scale; things like includes a compelling thesis and transitions well between paragraphs [12]. Given that my experience is that incoming Grinnell students are generally competent writers but have significant room for improvement, I was surprised to see that the initial averages were high. So I asked a senior colleague how they rated their students. They said something like Most of my Tutorial students are good writers, so they generally earn a four for the different categories. I responded something like, 4 represents achieves the level we expect of Grinnell students.
Does that mean that your Tutorial students are achieving the level you expect of students in your senior seminar?
And they responded No; of course not. But they achieve the level I expect of students in Tutorial. It’s hard to measure growth if you don’t have a consistent scale.

I should note that I am happy with the current measurement approach, which involves gathering both papers and assignments from early in students’ careers and late in their careers and having a group of faculty from across the College read and compare those papers. But that is an incredibly time-consuming measurement.

So I guess that’s my second challenge with measurable outcomes: My experience is that measurements are difficult to develop, difficult to administer, and often are less reliable than we would expect. I will admit that this concern is less significant than the concern that focusing on measurable outcomes means we de-emphasize less measurable, but potentially more important outcomes. But it’s still a (related) concern.

Third, I have difficulty matching the expected number of outcomes. Five to eight seems like a reasonable number. But that also hides a number of smaller (and more measurable) outcomes. For example, hidden within Can write a non-trivial Scheme program is a few dozen smaller things that I expect students to do with Scheme: Write a procedure; include parameters in the procedure; call a procedure; sequence operations by nesting; sequence side-effecting operations in the body of a procedure or let; define local variables with let or let*; know the difference between let and let*; understand lists and the core operations on lists, such as cons, car, cdr, and null?; understand the different kinds of numbers (integers, reals, and complex numbers, each of which can be exact or inexact) and the operations on them; use conditionals and predicates; and so on and so forth. And that ignores the higher-level things, such as design an algorithm, design tests for the algorithm, consider edge cases, decompose a problem, and more.

Believe it or not, but I do try to test each of those smaller things throughout the semester. Each time we sit down to write an exam [14], my co-teacher and I make a list of both the core Scheme concepts and the broader program design concepts we’ve considered recently and try to ensure that each is captured in a problem. Now, we might leave out a few; a student who knows car, cadr, and cdr probably does not need to be tested on cddr. But we do try to be comprehensive.

Is this just an issue with me struggling to get the right size of the learning outcome? I’m not sure. I’m testing the question of whether they can program, but I’m testing it at a lower level. It’s also clear that the measurable outcomes folks wouldn’t be happy with me saying I have eighty-five outcomes for this course.

Fourth, I am definitely more of a process person than a product person. I care that students have done things in my class, even if they don’t all learn the same thing from that activity.

For example, each class period I randomly pair students to work on problems. That means that each student works with a wide variety of other students throughout the semester. I have multiple goals in that pairing. I believe that almost no matter what students do after they graduate Grinnell, they will have instances in which they need to work with other people. Often they will have someone who thinks differently than they do. Sometimes they will have a great partner. Sometimes they will have someone who prefers to allow them to do most of the work. Sometimes they will have someone who refuses to cede authority. Most of the time, they’ll have a cooperative partner, but someone who still thinks differently. A key goal for many of my courses is that students practice working with other people.

Most students appreciate that practice. But they also experience different outcomes. I’ve had students who enter the course thinking I work much better on my own and leave saying While I prefer to work on my own, there are circumstances in which I do better with a partner. I’ve had others leave the course saying I really like to work with other people, but sometimes I have to work on my own to make sure that I master the material. Most leave with better collaboration skills. And I could probably measure these, at least indirectly, such as through partner surveys. But I’m not sure that it’s worth it. I see the students improve. My class mentors see the students improve. Why add another layer of complexity to the course?

Fifth, I don’t expect that every student will take the same thing away from my course, and I don’t think they have to. There are things that every student will do. But there are also many things that are individual learning outcomes, often more minor outcomes. For example, on the last day of class this semester, one student said that one of the most important things they learned in my class was just how many interesting things happen on Grinnell’s campus [14]. Is that a necessary learning outcome? No. Did some students know that entering the class? Certainly; I had at least one student who was able to comment on most of the announcements I made in class. Is it still an important learning outcome for that student, and many others? Yes.

While that example is tangential to the primary focus of my courses, I also see differences in what people take away related to computer science. For example, in the introductory course, some students say that they learned a more focused way of looking at a variety of problems. Others may have entered with a focused way of looking at problems. And others may not see broader applicability. That’s okay. It’s important to me that students find what is important to them from my course. And perhaps that’s a key issue: if we look primarily at the common learning outcomes, we miss the individual outcomes.

Okay, that’s probably enough. I seem to have found many of my primary concerns with measurable learning outcomes. The biggest concern is that the focus on measurable outcomes is that they tend to crowd out other outcomes, both common outcomes that are difficult to measure explicitly and individual outcomes that don’t fit into the outcomes for all expectation. But I also worry about the granularity of measurement that is appropriate, the focus on measuring things that we already observe in other ways, and the emphasis on product over process.

At times, I wonder if it’s just that the folks who focus on measurable outcomes have had very different teaching experiences than we do at Grinnell. With small classes, you see students learn and you can often tailor learning outcomes to individuals. If your experience is primarily in larger classes, it seems unlikely that you can see learning in individual students and you are more likely to focus on broad instruments rather than on the individual. Or maybe I’m just biased.

I do think I have an appropriate compromise solution [15]. My section on learning outcomes will begin with something like this statement [16].

In my experience, each student enters this course with their own goals and expectations and leaves the course with their own, individual learning outcomes. However, there are some common goals I have for this course. They include the following.

I will then mix together things we might consider measurable learning outcomes (e.g., can write a non-trivial program in Scheme; can write a recursive procedure; can read and interpret an algorithm) with less measurable outcomes (e.g., thinks better about problem solving).

In any case, I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Dean’s Office and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment about this part of my syllabus [17].

[1] The Faculty Handbook suggests that we should be sending them to our department chairs, so it’s not that much different to send them to the ASAs.

[2] I’m amazed by the number of things they are asking us to do Just in case the accreditors decide to ask for it. But I also understand that reaccreditation can induce anxiety.

[3] As you might expect, I had about a dozen critiques of the guidelines. I’m keeping those private.

[4] The Faculty Handbook is clear that faculty have control over the structure of their syllabi. So they really can’t require particular components.

[5] If Kool-Aid still a registered trademark? How about in the context of I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid?

[6] Stop laughing. If the recommendations are reasonable, such as the suggestion that we write about accommodations and religious holidays, I’m happy to follow them. And I’m willing to try things that might not be as reasonable.

[7] You can also read my notes on the Mission Statement.

[8] I define work broadly. It might include something as complex as a paper or examination or something as simple as classroom participation.

[9] I admit that we don’t see the changes happen in all students in every course. But we see them happen to most students in most courses.


[11] Or at least start to think like a computer scientist.

[12] Those are not the exact questions. I don’t have the instrument at hand.

[14] Four exams per semester.

[14] In many courses, I give a modicum of extra credit for a selected set of events on campus, typically major academic talks (e.g., Scholars Convocation or Rosenfield Symposia) or musical events, department talks and discussions, peer support activities (e.g., attending a peer’s play, concert, or athletic event), and a few other things. Since I give extra credit, I announce these events and encourage students to announce their own.

[15] It doesn’t really have to be a compromise as I have control over my syllabus. But, as I said earlier, I am trying to cooperate in this endeavor.

[16] And yes, I know it needs work.

[17] Don’t you feel sorry for them?

Version 1.0 of 2017-12-31.