When I was hired as a microbiology instructor at Bakersfield College I never considered the fact that the public would demand evidence that learning goes on inside my classroom; but they have. I am required to develop and assess Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) by the new WASC accreditation standards. Do I develop and use SLOs because I am obliged by accreditation? Do I identify SLOs in the courses I teach because they represent the latest educational panacea or state-of-the-art edu-babble? Hardly! My perspective on SLOs has been molded by distinct advantages I have seen as a result of using them in my classes and the benefits from campus-wide discussions about learning outcomes. SLOs have worked for me and my students, and provided a nucleus for dynamic and valuable dialogue with colleagues.
SLO’s help focus on the relevant and contemporary content to use in my course. I teach microbiology, a field exploding with new information on a daily basis. It is nearly impossible for me to stay current with all the new data and I have to admit that I struggle with displacing the old and comfortable aspects of my discipline, that I know so well, and selecting appropriate new material to incorporate. Why not just add more; there is not enough time!
SLOs help define the content.
SLOs help define what I cover in a dynamic way. As the factoids of science change and new information slowly reforms our understanding of essential biology content, my SLOs keep me honestly abreast of the information I need to cover as it relates to the overall picture.
Material that does not contribute to my student’s ability to reach the learning outcome, while interesting, really has no role in my course and must be eliminated.
SLOs are written with an overarching perspective of the course and represent an integration of the content. In this way SLOs provide a boundary or definition for the material I include, and more useful for me, the material I exclude.
SLOs can alter classroom interactions.
I have seen significant advantage in the classroom interactions with my students and what appears to be significant learning achievement as a result of a clearer focus on what the outcomes should be.
Students have shared that they more clearly understand what I expect them to do rather than what the course will cover. As a result students have more clearly identified areas of difficulty for themselves rather than depending upon me to guess the areas in which they are lacking.
SLOs define what my students should be able to do at the end of the course thereby guiding and enabling the students to selectively pick and choose methods to study, digest, and synthesize a large volume of new information. Student visits to my office have been invested in discussing studying strategies more often than answering “Will this be on the test?
Students realize the final course products are behaviors and skills rather than a stack of notes and a collection of course assignments. They are less likely to see the grade as something they earn by work (regardless of the relevancy, accuracy, or quality of the work) but as a clearly defined expectation that must be met.
Students have commented that they are without excuse because they clearly understand the expectations throughout the course and for the final. This is a wonderful turn of events compared to the often heard complaint that they studied for hours and got a poor grade, intimating I, as the instructor, am to blame.
Students feel they know the whole picture at the beginning of the semester and can use their studying more efficiently by focusing on items of value that contribute to the SLOs.
SLOs direct and guide the types of assessments needed.
SLO’s have provided the foundation for my exams, particularly the final exam. Thus, while SLOs take time on the front side, they have actually saved me time and work later in the semester.
Because I want the students to be able to DO something when they leave, I no longer ask essay or multiple choice questions about a skill they should develop, I have them perform the task and evaluate them. For example, no more questions on how to focus a microscope, they must make a slide, focus it, and show me the result.
SLOs have helped me focus on higher order thinking skills as I assessment student competencies, because I am aware that ultimately they must not only know the material, but be able to use it.
SLOs and assessment produce constructive data to modify pedagogy.
Previously I determined class activities by gut level instincts (which aren't that bad, but are hard to explain to others) and student responses concerning how they liked an activity. These are good information, but do not provide data that students have actually learned something.
SLOs represent an ultimate measurable goal therefore I am able to analyze feedback from students concerning their mastery of material and their ability to integrate information at a higher level of thinking e.g. evaluation and analysis of material versus memorization.
Assessment methods have provided me with skilled diagnostic techniques to determine changes in my approach to material. I found that some activities, while fun, required too much energy in comparison to the actual benefit as measured by the outcomes. In some cases I was able to tweak activities maximize learning and involvement from the students.
Dynamic learning based on outcomes has sometimes required that I take unexpected detours, spend more time on a subject, turn a lecture into a discussion, or create another assignment. Because I am focused on learning outcomes this may mean I have to skip some content or reduce the time spent on some material. With the learning outcomes as my guide I find this task easy because I can prioritize what material is most beneficial to achieving the outcomes.
SLOs and assessment have stimulated valuable professional dialogue with colleagues.
Conversation with colleagues less often focus on complaining about the poor level of students, instead SLOs have contributed to a focus on diagnostic tools and constructive strategies to reach outcomes.
Because the intuitive course framework I historically operated on has been fleshed out, my colleagues know the most vital goals and outcomes for the course and how I prioritize them. As a result they have provided more specific and detailed help when I have questions or problems.
Discussions with faculty from courses that feed into mine, or courses that my material support, now have data to adjust how we integrate and build on the content to produce better learning.
Within my discipline area, to our delight and surprise, we discovered that to a large extent we agree and operate on the same outcomes but use widely varying vehicles and methods to get there. This has allowed us to share strategies and expand out repertoire.
A common theme on campus is that faculty have seen the importance of incorporating General Education outcomes in their courses even when approaching their own particular field of study.
Amongst the Bakersfield College faculty a campus survey revealed that SLOs are most valued due to personal benefit in the classroom and the opportunities they produce to dialogue with other faculty.