The Outcomes Primer

Reconstructing the College Curriculum

By Ruth Stiehl with Les Lewchuk


Part 1 Confronting Confusion

Our biases about teaching and learning are deeply ingrained and are revealed in our course syllabi which mirror one of three basic frameworks:

1.      A Content Framework which consists largely of topics to be covered, readings on the topics, term papers on the topics, and objective tests regarding the topics.

2.      A Competency Framework which consists largely of miniscule tasks the student will have to demonstrate for a grade.  Demonstration of competence, in often trivial and disconnected tasks, is a direct result of reform efforts in education from 1965-1985 when the framework was based on behavioral psychology.

3.      A Learning-Centered Outcomes Framework which tells up front what the student will be able to DO (during the rest of life) with what s/he learns in the course.  Students engage in meaningful tasks (projects) that require synthesis of understanding and skill development.


The Paradox of Educational Reform

Learner control versus society control of learning is rooted in one of two basic social conflicts of a democracy: the freedom of the individual to grow and develop as a living system and the needs of society to predict and control for the benefit of all.  The paradox is revealed in the apparent incompatibility of the mechanical and imposed needs of society and the individual needs, potential, and growth of the learner.  “The strength of a learner-centered outcome-driven curriculum is that it is flexible enough to allow room for individual growth yet provide continuity and structure to guarantee that society’s need for competent workers and community citizens is met”  Restructuring the college curriculum requires an understanding of this balance.


The Increasingly Complex Role of the College Instructor

In the recent past, the changes in faculty role perception appear to be more rapid in community colleges than in four-year institutions.  Traditionally, the best “expert” was hired to teach a specialized body of knowledge; in the 1980s and 1990s, these experts assumed an expanded expectation for “facilitating” student learning.  The emerging view at the beginning of this century is to envision what our students should be able to do “out there” as a result of their work in the classroom.


Content-Centered Teaching

The center of the higher education universe had been the content.  “Learning is assumed to be linear and therefore content-centered teaching is a “fixed time with fixed expectations process.”




Learning-Centered Facilitation

Facilitation, coaching, collaborative learning – are these just passing fads?  Learning is about making cognitive connections and realizing that nothing exists in isolation.


Part 2 Thinking Outside the Classroom Box

Envisioning Outcomes – Intended and Unintended

“Learning means engaging in a task that builds personal capacity for the rest of life.”  The question to ask is: “What do my students need to be able to DO ‘out there’ (in the rest of life) that we are responsible for in this classroom?”  These are intended outcomes.  Unintended outcomes can sometimes be more significant than the results the course is designed to provide.  This is the balance between society’s need to protect educational standards and each student’s need to grow and develop as a unique person.


Creating Assessment Tasks

“Once we have clearly stated outcomes for a course, assessment is merely finding appropriate ways for students to demonstrate their capability to meet those outcomes.”  Assessment takes two forms: formative and summative.  Formative assessment goes on continuously throughout the learning activities to see what progress is being made and to increase learning.  Grading this work is not the intention.  It is to observe and track how the student is progressing.  Summative assessment is associated with each intended outcome and takes place when the learning experience is completed.


Defining Content: Analyzing What Students Need to Understand

A major concern regarding outcomes-based education is that somehow subject content is lost.  It isn’t lost, but it no longer comes first.  Curriculum design isn’t just a process of deciding what content should be covered.  It is a process of deciding what content students must understand and master in order to achieve intended outcomes.  The focus is on “understanding” and “Skills.”  What students need to understand is expressed in three ways: themes, concepts, and issues.


Defining Content: Analyzing What Skills Students Need

Defining content is determining what set of skills the learner needs to master in order to demonstrate the intended outcome.  Skills are distinguished from themes, concepts, and issues by how they are learned.  They are taught and learned through demonstration, practice, feedback, and more practice.  Themes, concepts, and issues are learned by exploring ideas and dialoguing about the meaning.  There are skills that are raised to the level of institutional learning outcomes because they are the responsibility of all disciplines (critical thinking, writing, listening, analyzing, etc.) and need to show up in every curriculum plan.  Outcomes involve interdisciplinary skills.  The content of any course or academic program is described in terms of the skills to be developed and the themes, concepts, and issues to be understood.






Analyzing the Outcome to Determine the Content

“Instead of setting out to design a course around the content we want to cover, we let the content emerge from a vision of what students need to be able to do beyond the classroom.”  This is diametrically opposed to the “content first” culture of higher learning.”


Strategic Plan for Learning Experiences

The necessity of planning curriculum backwards, from the outside in, leads to the curriculum becoming a strategic plan with a clear focus and careful alignment of appropriate learning experiences.  This enables the students to see the relationship between the content they must learn, the assessment that will be conducted and the intended outcomes, which speak with meaning for their lives outside the classroom walls.


Part 3 Designing Backwards From the Outside In

A Learning-Centered Outcomes-Based Curriculum Development Process

The whole curriculum should be dependent upon the communities and places of work where our students will find themselves in the years to come.  The world of the student can be divided into either the near or far environment.  The near environment is the immediate future and can be more easily envisioned.  The far environment includes making some projections regarding the future and the broad scope of life.  This curriculum is attuned in every way to the world in which our students will live, and it follows six steps of development.

1.      Envision the learner in “the rest of life” contexts

2.      Envision what the learner is able to do as a result of this course or program

3.      Determine what concepts and issues the learner will need to understand

4.      Determine what skills the learner will need to possess

5.      Determine what the learner can do to show proficiency in this course or program

6.      Create standards for the assessment task


Significant Assessment Tasks

Assessment tasks must be more than academic exercises – they must involve the kinds of complex tasks students are faced with in the rest of life.  All through life we are solving problems, producing products, giving presentations, demonstrating procedures, creating documentation-like portfolios.  Assessment tasks should be parallel to what students will do in life with what they have learned.


Redesign Course Outlines of Record

1.      Work as teams

a.       Creating a flow

b.      Being brief

c.       Writing with clarity

2.      Themes

a.       Every outcome statement has embedded into it two or three themes that come from the outcome statements, not from textbook titles


3.      Concepts

a.       The development of concepts (personal meaning) brings depth to study and leads to connect this meaning to new experience

b.      Concepts elevate our thinking to a level of abstraction

c.       Concepts are typically represented by one or two words that have universal application and appear timeless

4.      Issues

a.       Issues are the primary problems the student must understand in order to achieve the intended outcome

5.      Skills

a.       Skills are what a student must be able to do and requires a routine of practice and feedback

b.      It must be a process they can master

6.      Assessment Tasks

a.       Assessment tasks are what students are asked to do (projects, demonstrations, presentations) to show their understanding and their skill

7.      Intended Outcomes

a.       Outcomes are clear statements of what students will be able to do outside the classroom with what they have learned

b.      These statements should be clear enough to be understood by anyone who has an interest in the course

c.       They must be complex enough to provide direction for the whole course

d.      Program outcomes are essential to writing good course level outcomes

e.       Create a program map to see the connections between the courses

8.      Program Outcomes Guide

a.       Prerequisites – What must the student be able to do before engaging in this work?

b.      Courses – What learning experiences (courses) are necessary to prepare the student?

c.       Capstone Assessment Tasks – What can we have students do in this program to show final evidence of the intended outcomes?

d.      Intended Outcomes – What do students need to be able to DO “out there” for which this program will prepare them?


Part 4 Getting Your Feet Wet

1.      Faculty Energy and Commitment

a.       There is evidence in three of the four studies cited that the dialogue inherent in outcomes-based curriculum planning renews faculty energy and commitment.

b.      There is evidence from at least two of the studies cited that outcomes-based curriculum planning increased collaboration and reduced competition between programs and campuses in a multiple campus institution.

2.      Six Stages in Outcomes-Based Curriculum Reconstruction at the Course Level

a.       Immersion – Curriculum group is immersed in outcomes “thinking” without an intent of “training” them.

b.      Creation – Sub-groups take on constructing COGs (course outcome guides) for courses they are particularly interested in revising.

c.       Negotiation – Curriculum group reviews the draft COGs and negotiates changed.

d.      Rounds of Revision – Sub-groups make further revisions until the larger group accepts the COGs (the process of word-smithing).

e.       Submission – COGs are filed with the curriculum office and website.

f.        Implementation – Instructors use COGs as a basis for their planning and student syllabi.

3.      The Outcomes Planning Process

a.       Traditional Content-Focused Planning Process

1.      Outline the course content

2.      Plan teaching strategies

3.      Plan grading policies – tests

4.      Course content outline

b.      Outcomes Planning Process

1.        Identify what must be understood: themes, concepts, issues

2.        Identify necessary skills

3.        Create appropriate assessment tasks and tools

4.        Identify intended learning outcomes