What Changes? Keeping Learning Outcomes Consistent in Times of Change

“Next-Gen Assessment” is an ongoing series of blog posts complemented by brief video discussions designed to provide a platform for assessment specialists, educators, and other professionals to discuss timely topics, identify best practices, and share new approaches to digital delivery during this extraordinary time.

Higher education has experienced significant changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including changes to the most basic elements of teaching, learning, and assessment. The social distancing encouraged by many federal, state, and municipal governments has forced traditionally classroom-taught courses to move to an online learning environment.

Switching from a face-to-face classroom environment to exclusively online instruction often involves substantial changes for faculty, students, and programs. The shift to remote instruction has led faculty to develop new and different ways of presenting course content, new ways for students to engage in learning, and new methods for assessing the learning, which need to be consistent with the new hardware and software used to teach the courses. As a result of these changes, administrators have asked many faculty to update their syllabi to reflect the changes that are needed. Of course, revising a syllabus in the middle of a semester is not trivial. At most institutions, the syllabus articulates the course objectives or student learning outcomes as well as how students will learn the objectives or learning outcomes and how student learning will be assessed. In an online environment, faculty may make substantial changes in how the teaching and learning occurs or the assessment is conducted. However, the learning outcomes or course objectives should remain constant even with the shift online.

The course objectives or student learning outcomes should be thought of as a “contract” between the program offering the course and the students who enroll in the course, a fundamental agreement about what content and skills the student should be expected to learn and perform at the end of the course. This is consistent with the emphasis on student learning outcomes and their assessment in program accreditation and certification. The specified content and skills that are outlined in the student learning outcomes ultimately are the reason the student is taking the class. These objectives or outcomes provide several key foundations for a course that should not be changed, except under very extraordinary circumstances. Changes in the course objectives and student learning outcomes would affect preparation for future coursework, for the next degree programs that students enter, and for future learning and employment. As specified in accreditation reports, the learning outcomes are how programs specify what students are expected to learn to attain degrees or certifications. Ultimately, faculty and administrators should be aware that any deviation in the intended course learning objectives or outcomes would have a potentially strong adverse impact on multiple constituencies, both inside and outside of the class, including faculty teaching the next course in the sequence, employers who expect students with certain skills and knowledge, and faculty reviewing student transcripts for admission to a graduate degree program.

Learning outcomes are often determined by program faculty jointly to ensure that a course fits into the program and the larger goals of the institution. Within the framework of the learning outcomes typically specified by the program faculty, individual faculty have the flexibility to teach and assess their course. Consequently, when changes are necessitated by a shift toward online instruction, the course instructor will have the freedom to adjust the instructional approaches and the assessments. However, the learning outcomes should be a consideration of larger faculty committees considering the context and purposes of the course within the program and the institution.

Video Discussion on Keeping Learning Outcomes Consistent in Times of Change

Tammie Cumming is assistant vice president and associate provost for institutional effectiveness at Brooklyn College, CUNY. M. David Miller is director of the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education and professor of research in assessment and evaluation methods at the University of Florida.

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