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Learning outcomes work pays dividends

May 18, 2007
By Elizabeth Boyle

Soon, anyone who wants to know what Ohio colleges and universities expect their students to learn should be able to find that information on each school's Web site. At Ohio University, however, that information -- and in much more detail -- has been available for months. 

That the university is a leader in this effort will benefit its students, said David Ingram, chair of Ohio University's General Education Learning Outcomes Committee. 

The Ohio Board of Regents is sponsoring an initiative in which all public and private colleges in Ohio are being asked to create Student Success Plans, "public statements of the measurable learning outcomes expected of students," and to report on student achievement relative to those outcomes. In other words, it wants colleges and universities to delineate what it is they hope students learn and then measure how well students meet those stated objectives. 

The Regents hope that establishing learning outcomes will make schools more accountable to students, parents, politicians and the public for the level of education they provide. Universities also can use the information from outcomes to influence changes in curricula that could help students learn more.

"Learning outcomes is about answering the question 'How do I know the students know what I think they know after they've taken the course?'" Ingram says. "All this is about helping us help the students learn better."

Ohio University was one of about five schools, including Bowling Green State University and Hocking College, that met the Regents' original Jan. 1 deadline to post Student Success Plans for general education courses, undergraduate majors and other designated institutionwide programs. Other schools are working toward an extended May deadline.

But Ohio University has exceeded the Regents' expectations. Urged by several Vision OHIO committees, it has created learning objectives for most academic departments and schools, Ingram said. Additionally, this winter, Faculty Senate passed a resolution that calls for faculty members to include the learning objectives for each course on their syllabi. Though many faculty already include objectives on syllabi, particularly those who teach courses in accredited majors such as engineering, all faculty are expected to do so beginning fall quarter.

"The fear is standardized testing will be imposed if we don't do it ourselves," Ingram said, referring to the fact that the U.S. Department of Education, which wants to increase accountability and productivity for higher education, is considering standardized testing as a possible method for meeting that goal. Many educators say standardized testing could lead to faculty members "teaching to the test" or to streamlined curricula, though recent discussions at the national level have suggested that the federal government wishes to impose minimal learning standards for higher education. 

Learning objectives provide a creative solution that helps maintain institutional uniqueness, says Mike Williford, assistant chair of the Learning Outcomes Committee. They also help demonstrate to legislators what students learn and could eventually influence state-level funding.

"We, as a state, in higher education are at a point where we can't just say 'trust us, give us the money,'" Williford said. "We want to show with learning objectives that our academic programs are striving for excellence and why we deserve increased funding."

The university now is working toward describing how students are meeting the objectives, Ingram said. Once it gathers information from that effort, the University Curriculum Council will consider any necessary changes to courses or to the objectives themselves. Then the process will begin again.

"This is an ongoing effort and it will never stop," Ingram said. "This is continuous improvement."


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Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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