"Much learning does not teach understanding." ....Hiraclitus.

Commentary of the Day - April 28, 2013.  Unlearning Outcomes.  Guest commentary by John Streamas.

[Ed. note: this is the second of two articles by Professor Streamas on the modern college syllabus.  If you have not already read his piece entitled "The Bloated Syllabus," you may wish to read it in conjunction with this article.]

In my experience, college students syllabus-illiteracy is an issue of refusal rather than inability, but the result is the same.  In, maybe, the thirteenth week of a semester, students ask about the relative grade-weights of quizzes and papers, even though the third page of the syllabus, which they received on the first day of class, clearly provides the answers in the form of a helpful chart.  And, if they have lost their syllabus, they need only to consult the department web site, which links to the syllabus.

Following that helpful chart are obligatory legalistic disclaimers: instructions for emergency contact information, referrals for waivers for disabilities, and reminders about academic integrity.  These usually take up a half-page or more.  The entire syllabus runs five pages, or seven, or maybe ten.  I have seen an undergraduate syllabus that, single-spaced, ran for thirty-one pages, which means that the syllabus itself should have counted as a reading assignment.  Apart from the legalistic disclaimers, there are features common to most syllabi: the course name and number, the place and time of class meetings, the instructor's name and contact information, a list of required texts and maybe some helpful but non-required texts, a course description, a list of course policies, a list of requirements and maybe extra-credit options, the policies for grading along with that chart breaking down grades by assignment, and a schedule of assignments.  I single-space my syllabi but keep them in a respectfully readable twelve-point font, and for most courses they are five pages long.  The longest sections are my course description, course policies, and the schedule of assignments.  I teach ethnic studies, and for obvious reasons I include, among the policies, a cautionary note on the lexicon of racial discourse.  I also include a note on respectfulness: We will be discussing volatile issues, so think before you speak, and respect the sensibilities of classmates, especially those who identify as members of historically marginalized groups.

Though I may, in course descriptions, include helpful quotes, I do not add epigraphs to the first page.  In ethnic studies, epigraphs are tempting, even to teachers of introductory courses.  I have seen syllabi for 100-level courses with quotes from Frantz Fanon, David Roediger, Judith Butler, Angela Davis, and several other celebrity-scholars.  Most of these quotes are excellent comments on particular issues, but they fail to serve as useful introductions to the field for students who have never heard of, say, white privilege.  They would work much better in the tenth week than on the first day.  Maybe this is why students "conveniently" misplace the syllabus.

Of all my gripes about the college course syllabus, the biggest is also the newest: the now obligatory statement of the course's "learning outcomes."  But to call it a "statement" is to mislabel it.  The models we are provided prod us into writing a few paragraphs of exposition and then a chart that, in all its institutional glory, sprawls across two pages.  Across the chart's top are columns that measure the semester by weeks or clusters of weeks, and down the left side are rows headed by degrees of achievement.  In the first three-week cluster, for example, a student in an introductory course in modern American literature might achieve mastery over foundational themes and writers, or perhaps familiarity with a few canonical texts but no ability to relate them to schools or themes, or perhaps only a minimal ability to summarize, much less analyze, any of the period's major works.  The ultimate goal is, of course, realized in the final cell in the chart: complete mastery of the material, both the reading of it and the writing about it, by the end of the semester.

My grandfather did not complete fifth grade, but if he were still alive and I told him that my employer requires me to place a statement of "learning outcomes" in my syllabus, he would hoot.  "Isn't that just a long-winded way of saying that you start at Point A and aim to finish at Point Z?" he would ask.  And he would be right.  If all the other sections already written into the syllabus -- especially the course description and the list of assignments -- cannot clarify, more than implicitly, a student's desired "learning outcomes," then it is doubtful that an entire section detailing those outcomes can do so.  Moreover, the very existence of the "learning outcomes" section implies administrators' surveillance over a prescribed method of reaching those outcomes, which effectively discourages teachers who might want to rock boats, make waves, or teach outside the box (or chart), in order to reach the goal by alternate routes and means.

I am old enough to remember courses that had no syllabi.  But by the time of my first teaching, as a teaching assistant in English, I could not dodge the imperative of the syllabus.  I did, however, design one course with a syllabus that was only a half-page long.  It was the best course I have ever taught, and I wish I could go back to a time when clueless administrators trusted teachers enough to release us from the kind of syllabus that, boring and much too long, our students choose not to read.             

  2013, John Streamas.
John Streamas is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University in Pullman, WA.

The Irascible Professor comments: I enjoyed reading Professor Streamas' perspective on learning outcomes.  His essay adds to the many opinions on the topic of learning outcomes and assessment that have been published on the pages of The Irascible Professor (just type the words "outcome" and "assessment" in the search box on the sidebar to read a few).  John is correct in noting that the attempts to measure "learning outcomes" are driven mainly by administrators, and the IP would add -- to some extent by student services professionals who want to be able to quantify what students learn.  They have succeeded in turning assessment into a cottage industry, if not a business.

The main problem with this kind of assessment is that some things that one learns in certain college or university classes can't easily be quantified.  For example, in a poetry class one might become a whiz at learning all the technical parameters that go into writing poetry, and that knowledge is quantifiable.  But, on the other hand, students will exit from the class with varying degrees of insight into the meaning and intent of the poems read.  That kind of deep understanding of poetry is a lot more difficult to quantify.

To be sure, there are many courses that dwell primarily on learning certain skills, where the knowledge gained can be reasonably measured quantitatively.  But, even in very quantitative disciplines such as physics, it can be very hard to measure the degree of insight a student has developed.  Famously, even the Nobel-Prize-winning theorist Richard Feynman admitted that there were certain aspects of quantum mechanics that he really did not fully understand.  He knew that certain subtle quantum quantities could be calculated accurately using standard, if highly mathematical, techniques; but, he wasn't totally sure why those calculations worked.  Even he, as brilliant as he was, did not have perfect insight into a theory that physicists use on a daily basis.

So we find that in many courses "learning outcomes" end up measuring only those things that are easily quantified and missing those essential insights that lead to a deeper understanding of the subject.  In reality, those of us who have taught for any length of time know that there are as many sets of learning outcomes as there are students, and not all of those outcomes fit neatly into an assessment matrix.


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