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I Wish They May, I Wish They Might: Wishes into Outcomes

  • How many times have you said to yourself, your colleagues, or to anyone who would listen, “I wish my students were able to . . .”? Whether you have   only two wishes or enough to rival a 6 year-old’s Christmas list, your wish(es) for your students simply won't come true if you don't have plan of action to realize them. Indeed, you cannot wish your student wishes into being--no matter how earnestly or loudly you proclaim them.

    In this age of assessment-obsessed. . .er uh, -focused education, you very likely have been required to articulate predetermined, departmental learning goals and/or outcomes in your syllabi. “Wait, what? What do you mean ‘And/or’? Aren’t goals and outcomes the same thing?” you may be asking. Well, no, they’re not, as I explain a little later, but this is a common misconception, as evidenced in the terms goalobjective, and outcome sometimes being used interchangeably, as well as in the departmental "outcomes" I've seen in my syllabus development work that are actually goals. So, if you’re required to include departmental statements of learning in your syllabi, you may be thinking that there’s no reason for you to ponder your teaching wishes, let alone transform them into learning outcomes.

    Not true.

    If your departmental outcomes are really goals, then engaging in this exercise may help you narrow them into measureable outcomes, thus leading you to a more purposeful teaching platform and a more solid assessment foundation. On the other hand, if your departmental outcomes are indeed measureable outcomes, then engaging in this wishes-to-outcomes exercise may provide you with additional outcomes that will enhance and allow you to personalize the learning targets for your course.

    Convinced? Well, alright--let's get started!

    The plan of action to realize your teaching wishes begins with a perceived learning goal that originates from your wish and then funnels into specific, narrowly-focused learning outcomes. Although the words goal and outcome are sometimes used interchangeably, as mentioned above, they are foundationally different. Student learning goals are broad statements of desired achievement, whereas outcomes are focused statements of measurable achievement and are thus narrower in scope than goals and preferably contain achievement targets. To ensure their ability to be  measured/assessed, outcomes must be articulated with active verbs, such as analyze, contrast, and demonstrate. You can see an exhaustive list of such verbs here.

    Now that the difference between goals and outcomes is clear, let’s begin the process of turning wishes into outcomes. (Cue magic wand, swirling glitter, and tinkly music. . .)

    • First, make a list of your wishes. Don’t be shy—list them all! These are wishes grounded in your desire to see your students succeed, not in greed, so, for the sake of your students, be generous with your wish list.
    • Second, rephrase your wishes into goals. This requires using language that articulates a desired achievement or objective.
    • Third, determine the distinct aspects of the goal that students will need to master in order to achieve the goal.
    • Last, develop outcomes that align with the aspects of the goal. More than one aspect may be contained in a single outcome, but, in some cases, each aspect may require its own outcome. This depends upon the form and nature of your assessment tools. Remember to use active verbs, such as the ones listed here.

    The example below shows the funneling of a wish into an outcome. Note that the example outcome does not contain all aspects of the goal, so in order for this goal to be achieved, more outcomes would need to be developed.

              Wish: I wish my students were able to communicate their ideas and opinions more                               effectively.

                         Goal: Students will clearly and logically communicate their ideas and opinions                                      in writing.

                                    Aspects of Goal: logical support, thorough development, organization,                                                                         clear expression, correct use of grammar and                                                                                       punctuation

                                                    Outcome: Students will demonstrate proficiency with the use of                                                                         sufficient and logical supporting information to fully                                                                             develop their ideas and opinions. ~OR~ Seventy-                                                                                five percent* of students will demonstrate proficiency                                                                          with the use of sufficient and logical supporting                                                                                    information to fully develop their ideas.

    Notice that, while each outcome identifies a level of achievement ("proficiency"), the second example specifies the target of 75% achieving proficiency. The level of achievement specified in an outcome will depend upon the levels identified in your assessment tools, such as grading rubrics. For example, my departmental rubric for assessing student writing uses "proficiency" to identify an average level of achievement.

    If particularly restrictive departmental requirements prevent you from developing your own outcomes (I worked with a faculty member who was required to use the departmental syllabus and absolutely could not add to it), then let me offer an alternative. Consider doing this exercise as a way to develop teaching outcomes for yourself.

    What wishes do you have for yourself or for your students that would lead to statements of desired teaching achievement? Maybe you wish that you were able to encourage better class participation. Or maybe you wish that your students recognized the value of their own ideas and interpretations. These are wishes that can only be fulfilled by adopting particular teaching approaches and strategies. Achieving the outcomes borne of these wishes will have a positive impact on the quality of your teaching, and in turn, enhance your students’ learning experiences.

    So, how to measure your teaching outcomes?

    Simple--with a short, simple survey. Simply ask your students to what extent they believe they have gained or achieved whatever the focus of your teaching outcome is. For instance, if your outcome has to do with increased class participation, your question might be: “To what extent did you feel encouraged to participate in class discussions?” Your answer choices would range from “all of the time” to “never.” Consider your outcome achieved if 70% or more of your students choose “all of the time” or “most of the time.” Of course, the level of class participation perceived prior to the implementation of new teaching strategies should determine your achievement target. If class participation is usually discouragingly low, then 70% might be too idealistic. The target percentage could be lowered or the number of responses to “some of the time” could be added to the ideal response total. But this isn’t all you’ll want to know.

    To facilitate needed adjustments, you’ll also want to know what strategy or approach most successfully encouraged students' class participation. Thus, you’ll need a second question on your survey that asks students to identify from a list of strategies and approaches you used that most encouraged their participation. And, of course, a space for additional comments should be offered.

    As with the midsemester feedback survey, it’s important to share the goal of this process with your students. Let them know about your wish list and the learning and/or teaching outcomes you developed to make these wishes a reality. Regarding the teaching outcomes, let your students know how valuable their feedback is to your continued efforts to improve and grow as a teacher. As a matter of fact, you should convey this value to your students when you distribute the survey. Such information will encourage more thoughtful and sincere responses. And finally, you should share the results of the survey, letting your students know how you plan to address the needs identified and asking for their input. Some students really appreciate knowing that their ideas and opinions are of value to their teachers’ continued growth and to future students.

    As teachers' lives can be overwhelmingly busy, you may be concerned with how much mileage you can get out of this process. To be sure, anything that can serve double-duty is a boon in our lives, right? Let me assume, then, that if you're interested in developing strong student learning and/or teaching outcomes, you're the kind of teacher who recognizes the value of a teaching philosophy. Well then, here's your extra mileage: identifying student learning and teaching outcomes is a useful step in developing or updating your teaching philosophy.  So. . .

    ready. . . set. . .Wish!


    What are your thoughts on or suggestions for developing student learning outcomes?  

    Next time: how your  students can take part in the wishes-to-outcomes activity, thus giving them the opportunity to help shape their learning outcomes and/or your teaching outcomes.


    *The percentage specification or assessment target is helpful when required to contribute data to departmental assessment efforts.


  • Melissa  Hudler
    Melissa Hudler Robert, thank you for your comments. I really like the double smiley face! You're absolutely correct about the focus of many syllabi. I assume that your emphasis of this means that you disagree with that kind of focus. Sure, we have to articulate expected...  more
    June 12, 2015
  • Robert  Ostrow
    Robert Ostrow In my department the expectation of a syllabus is that it is a document of legal standing and policy. Tour work in learning centered documents, for classes, is right on. We need to make the student understand that we want to teach them, not be policemen. ...  more
    June 12, 2015 - 1 likes this
  • Melissa  Hudler
    Melissa Hudler Robert, thank you for your encouraging remarks. What you say about teaching rather than policing is at the heart of the learning-centered approach to developing syllabi. But since administration must take, for legal reasons, a contract view of the Syllabu...  more
    June 12, 2015
  • Susan Farber
    Susan Farber Melissa and Robert's online conversation highlights which messages syllabi are to communicate to students.
    In recent years institutions require clarification of policies (and related consequences). Clearly defining what students are expected to do in orde...  more
    June 13, 2015 - 1 likes this