Learning Outcomes: a tense contradiction

A few years ago, as I was preparing my tenure dossier, I had occasion to reread years of student evaluations. My former approach to evaluations had been to read them immediately after a given course, to focus exclusively on any negative comments as indications of where I need to make changes for the future, and then to file them away with a shiver.

But this time, for whatever reason, I was able to read students’ comments more responsively. This time, I noticed that among many comments which described positive learning outcomes there was a common theme: students referred fondly to experiences in which they worked actively on an extended project during which they got regular formative feedback from myself and others. They often, in fact, referred to the labor of such projects as fun! Wow, what could be better?

My students manifested awareness that learning, as the word’s progressive verb form indicates, is a process rather than a conclusion. Even on end of semester evaluations, they weren’t thinking about learning–successful, memorable, productive studies, anyway–as finished, like small packages tied up with bows.

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Instead, the learning experiences they remembered–in other words, the ones that stayed in their minds–were processes with high and low points. Experiences with duration, not momentary enlightenments.

Learning outcomes. Have you ever noticed that the phrase is a contradiction? “Learning” is an ongoing, progressive verb. “Outcomes” suggests an endpoint. Even our familiar lightbulb, that symbol of delighted cognition, is either on or off, as though learning was a binary status change, from unknowing to knowing.

And who wants that? Why do we constantly talk about measuring learning outcomes as though such a thing might indicate a positive (or negative) value. To me, any operation or exercise that stops the learning is counterproductive. I want my students to leave my courses ready and eager to continue learning! Such an attitude doesn’t indicate a failure (not enough outcome) but rather a success. So when a student tells me a couple months after she graduates that she has “been adding to that blog” she began in my class–that’s the best possible “outcome” of all. What is the word for an outcome that is itself a continuing practice?

Since that realization, I have tried to foster learning experiences in my courses rather than assessable products, a shift which has, paradoxically, produced ever-improving student work but also—and more importantly, I believe—durable learning collaborations and happy memories, all nurtured by digital connectivity.

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