In the last installment of this very occasional series, I talked about learning outcomes in a big-picture, ‘what are they and what’s the point?’ kind of way. Today I want to look at the issue more concretely, using an example from some of my own courses to make a few points. There are also a few ruminations about the point of graduate courses. So join me below.
A bit of background: this semester I’m teaching a graduate course for the first time. Two of them, in fact: one on Plato, one on Aristotle. And while this is an amazing opportunity (especially for someone who was a grad student themselves not very many months ago), it brings some interesting challenges with it.
As I was planning the class, I had to think about what the value for my students would be in taking these classes. I mean, there’s some intrinsic value in learning about the content of the classes (soul and immortality in Plato, and Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, respectively) but that could be said about any graduate course. And 'Hey, come be a captive audience to talk about my favorite things!' is a bit self-indulgent. It's great for me, sure, but what do the students get out of it?
The easy answer, and the one I presume we’re all most familiar with from our own time in grad school, is that we take graduate courses to learn to do what professional philosophers do regarding that topic. This would involve having two learning outcomes, something like: (a) fluency with primary/secondary literature on topic, and (b) ability to write professional paper contributing to scholarly debate on topic. And for students who want to do research in ancient, that makes sense.
But not every grad student wants to claim an AoS in your course topic. Some are just there to fill a distribution requirement, or to prep for a qualifying exam. And writing a research paper isn’t the best way to prep for this, because a research paper is typically going to address a very narrow topic. I also have a number of students who are aiming for teaching-focused jobs rather than research-focused jobs(note focused ≠ exclusive; see here), which let's be honest is the most likely outcome for most of us anyway. But there’s almost nothing in a typical graduate course to help grad students learn to teach the topic you’re covering (see here). Hence I don’t think it makes sense to have a one-size-fits-all approach to the class.
So, I thought a bit about how to design a graduate-level course that could accommodate the various aims your students might have. What I came up with was to give students three choices for their assignments, which reflect the three sets of learning outcomes I could think of for graduate students. Everyone has to do a couple reviews of the secondary lit from class, but the bulk of their assignments will come from one of three groups:
AoS Track: Give an APA-style presentation based on a 3000-word first draft of a research paper. Comment on another student’s APA-style presentation. Submit a revised 5000 draft of paper.
AoC Track: Give two 30-minute lectures on primary course content. Design a lower- division survey course syllabus and an upper-division topic- or figure-centered syllabus based on course content.
Exam Track: Write one additional article review. Take three mini-area exams, in epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics.
Corresponding to these three tracks would be three distinct learning outcomes:
AoS: Ability to write professional paper contributing to scholarly debate in ancient philosophy
AoC: Ability to teach upper- and lower-division courses in ancient philosophy
Exam: Ability to pass the ancient philosophy component of qualifying exams
This way of designing a course is a bit experimental, so we’ll see how it goes (it makes sense in principle, but principles of good teaching are hard to discover a priori). But I think it helps illustrate a few things worth thinking about.
First, the notion that learning outcomes are just a bureaucratic hurdle to jump through is, I think, wrong and unhelpful. It makes sense to think about learning outcomes across the board, even at the graduate level. A little forethought and creativity can go a long way.
Second, it’s important to think through the connections between the kind of assignments you’re using. As I suggested above, research papers make sense for some outcomes, but not for others, because they only require a subset of philosophical skills. Ditto for other kinds of assignments. Whatever you take the learning outcomes of your course to be, you should think through what assignments are conducive to those outcomes. Conversely, if you’re dead set on using a certain kind of assignment, then be aware that your students might only develop the skills involved in that assignment, not others.
Third, there is a variety of different learning outcomes even at advanced levels, and those outcomes might pull in different directions. Maybe you only care about some outcomes. That’s fine, so long as you design the class accordingly. Or, if you want to try to help your students develop all of them, then you might have to make them do many different kinds of assignments (rather than, say, hoping the relevant skills will develop on their own). Or, you can decide that you can’t have all your students meet all the possible outcomes for your course, so you need to decide how to pick and choose (or let the students pick and choose).
Like I said, this is my first time trying out this idea, so we’ll see if the execution works the way I hope. But the underlying ideas are, I think, on the right track. So hopefully this gives a more concrete example of the principles I discussed in my last post, about how to think through the connections between outcomes and class activity.
I’ll end with some questions, because I always like hearing what other people have tried. On either the student or teacher end, have you seen any interesting examples of the assignment-outcome relationship I’ve described? Tried something that failed in an instructive way? Or that worked better than expected?
Past Entries in this Series: