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Trend to measure learning outcomes gains proponents

Canadian universities have been slow to move but may have to keep up with the international trend, observers say.


What’s the value of a degree? To answer that question, a growing number of universities are adopting student learning outcomes as a means of ensuring the quality of their degrees, as well as helping students move between institutions within Canada and abroad.

“It’s a little bit of an international phenomenon,” said Donna Woolcott, executive director of quality assurance at the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance. The council was established in 2010 by the Council of Ontario Universities to assure the quality of university degrees and programs offered in the province. It approves all new programs and periodically reviews existing ones. Alberta, British Columbia and most recently Saskatchewan have also instituted councils to review new degree programs and make recommendations to the appropriate minister.

Concerns over the quality of a university education have been growing since the publication in 2011 of the contentious American book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which called into question how much postsecondary students were learning. “There’s been a bit of a hue and cry, in the U.S. in particular, that maybe universities have been failing their students in meeting certain basic writing, critical thinking, team-work and leadership-type skills,” said Dr. Woolcott.

The trend has also been spurred in part by a proliferation of new types of degree-granting institutions and new ways to offer programs, such as online degrees and blended learning initiatives. At the same time, universities are facing growing demands for greater accountability. The most recent report of the Auditor General of Ontario called on the provincial government to work with universities to develop “meaningful measures” for student learning outcomes as a way to maintain teaching quality, to help students make informed decisions when selecting university programs and to prepare them for the workforce.

Dr. Woolcott said program development and review have traditionally focused on whether sufficient numbers of qualified faculty members are available to teach a program. “That’s still important, but now we’re asking much more what will students get out of the program, what will they come away with in terms of knowledge and skills and capacity to either go on to further study or to go out and enter the labour market.”

It isn’t an entirely new concept. Learning outcomes and competencies are common in professional programs such as medicine and business, often to meet accreditation standards. But now institutions are moving towards university-wide learning outcomes.

In December, the University of Guelph adopted five learning outcomes for all of its degree programs. They are: critical and creative thinking, literacy, global understanding, communication, and professional and ethical behaviour. The outcomes are designed to give students a clear understanding of the broad skills they will acquire in a program beyond knowledge and content, said Serge Desmarais, Guelph’s associate vice-president, academic. The learning outcomes will also help satisfy calls for increased accountability and meet the requirements of the province’s quality assessment board. Universities are used to operating with very little oversight but that’s changing, he said.

Quality assessment has been part of the discussions leading up to Quebec’s education summit meetings this winter. In Alberta, Mount Royal University put in place institution-wide learning outcomes in 1997. Since its transition to a degree-granting university in 2009, it has moved towards institution-wide “learning aims,” which are broader in scope, explained Theresa Matus, director of Mount Royal’s academic development centre.

Other universities, following in the footsteps of their international counterparts, are also considering adopting learning outcomes but the trend hasn’t been universally embraced. Some faculty members vigorously oppose learning outcomes, arguing that they are an infringement on their academic freedom and autonomy over how courses should be designed and delivered. Some faculty view the trend as the creep of corporate sector quality-assurance methods into education, threatening to reduce universities to little more than training institutions.

While learning outcomes may sound reasonable and benign, once implemented, they lead professors to design courses that produce measurable results, said Christopher Pavsek, associate professor of film at Simon Fraser University. “What you have then are professors who worry more about meeting their assessment targets than they do about actual teaching,” he said. “It completely transforms the way teaching works; it completely transforms the university and not in ways that are beneficial to education by any stretch.” Also contentious among faculty members is the use of American-style methods and tests to identify, implement and assess learning outcomes.

An issue for professors is that they don’t want to “give up sovereignty over what happens in the classroom,” said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates. But, as more and more countries adopt learning outcomes, Canada will have little choice but to follow, he added. “If I want my students to be mobile, if I want to have international students, and as this becomes more and more of a global standard, it’s actually dangerous not to join in.”

European countries were early adopters of learning outcomes through the Tuning Process, an initiative now more than a decade old, that seeks to harmonize skills and competencies at the subject or program level. Its aim is to facilitate degree recognition, credit transfers and the mobility of students across jurisdictions. The approach has spread throughout many other parts of the world including Latin America, Russia, Africa, Asia, Australia and the U.S.

Last year, the American Historical Association launched a nation-wide Tuning project involving more than 60 U.S. colleges and universities to identify common elements that characterize history programs offered by participating institutions. The U.S. has experimented with other methods of measuring learning outcomes such as the widely used Collegiate Learning Assessment and other tests designed to measure critical thinking skills.

Canadian institutions have for the most part rejected the use of standardized tests, but eight Ontario colleges and universities, including Guelph, are taking part in a pilot project funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario to assess the Collegiate Learning Assessment. HEQCO and the Canadian Bureau for International Education have funded Tuning feasibility studies as well, and HEQCO oversees the participation of several Ontario universities in a global pilot project known as the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, or AHELO, spearheaded by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But for the most part, Canadian universities are opting to go it alone rather than take part in multinational or multi-institutional processes, said Mr. Usher. Guelph’s Dr. Desmarais noted that some research and Guelph’s own experience administering the Collegiate Learning Assessment have raised questions about the test’s effectiveness. “The response rate is low,” he said. “Even if you impose it, students are not engaged in the activity.” Guelph is about to begin testing the use of e-portfolios and other tools to measure learning outcomes but, he said, it likely will be several more years before it settles on an institution-wide assessment tool.

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  1. Christina / February 8, 2013 at 14:34

    This brings attention to the broader debate of systematizing the learning process and the unintended consequences of reducing this process to a granular and scientific method that does not take into account the nuances of sociological, philisophical and cultural contexts. We need to openly discuss threats to academic freedom and intellectual freedom through these “rationalized” mechanisms that, ultimately, do not bring equity despite our greatest efforts. Unless these instutional learning outcomes have true “buy in” from the academy, they become yet another level of bureaucracy that does not actually enhance the learning process of students.

  2. Christopher / February 9, 2013 at 18:04

    I briefly worked at a university in New Zealand that became obsessed with this stuff. Its rubbish. It just becomes a time wasting game that generates paperwork for everyone. No one took it seriously. There were no benefits to anyone.

  3. Me / February 11, 2013 at 11:47

    I’ll be free of academia and its BS April 19, and I CAN’T WAIT. Academia is archaic and rigid, and ill-suited to the purposes we have for it.

    Supply of various degrees and the tuition prices for them do not reflect what the economy demands, so we misallocate tens of billions of dollars mis-“educating” people. We have the most distinguished, credentialed and debt-enslaved waiters, barristas, and delivery drivers in the world. We should be so proud.

    I put “educating” in quotations, because academia is really about jumping through hoops (ie accreditation — not education). In my experience, if you actually spend your time trying to learn out of self-motivation, you penalize yourself.

    I’ve forgotten much more than I remember. And the reason why, is that the pressure to regurgitate material on an imposed deadline prevents you from appreciating the material.

    We need to rethink the entire institution from the ground up.