• Joe Cooke

Why we hate OUTCOMES (and how to fall back in love with them)



"Outcomes" has become an almost un-hearable word. In a training not long ago, the teachers were talking about outcomes as "What we need to teach the students," and there was a definite underpinning of resistance in their voices.

"OUTCOMES" ARE NOT PAINFUL MANDATES DROPPED DOWN ON US FROM ABOVE (administration).

Well, sometimes they are, but they shouldn't be.

Here are some outcomes from an actual course (not exactly inspiring, so I won't cite the source):

1. Students will understand, analyze, and effectively use the conventions of the English language.

2. Students will examine how texts function across a range of genres, contexts, and cultures.

3. Students will fulfill the University’s Public Affairs Mission by analyzing how their writing, reading, and research:-respond to existing leadership and help provide new leadership-represent cultures and encounters between cultures-answer the needs of existing communities and creative new communities (or how these skills might be meaningfully applied in these areas).

​The good news is: there are only three. The bad news is: they are lofty, not very interesting and not very measurable. And there are really about ten or twelve of them embedded in there, obtusely. Also, they don't really appeal to the creative spirit. In fact, I'm having a hard time believing that the creative writing faculty wrote these. No wonder we all hate working with outcomes and outcome-based design. Let's see if we can find a way to create some better promises, some that we can deliver and measure, and some take-aways that matter.

​Think about your own courses. Why do the students take them? Don't stop at the superficial. Ask yourself "Why?" at least 7 times. Take out a piece of paper and start writing.

​Put down the course title. Let's say it's creative writing. Why do students take creative writing?

​It's an elective.

​Why are they taking an elective?

​They need it to graduate.

​Yes, but why this one? Why writing?

​Maybe they want to be better writers.

​Why be a better writer? (What was it about 'creative writing' that draws students to the class?)​​

Maybe they have stories trapped inside them and they want a way to get them out. Maybe they want some confidence, some experience, some feedback. Maybe they just want someone to guide them as they try.

Why experience? Why a guide? How do they gain confidence?

Creative writing, writing for pleasure, can be scary, and maybe they just need some practice and some structure. Maybe they know that by creating works of fiction and narrative non-fiction, they will release some pent up mental activities, maybe even eventually write a book, or even just an article or a short story.

You get the idea - keep going as long as you have to. When you eventually figure out WHY the students are taking your writing class, your philosophy class, your math class, then you can think about WHAT you are promising to help them learn. Those promises are your outcomes.

Here are the stated outcomes for the creative writing major from the University of Arizona:

A student graduating with a B.A. in Creative Writing should be able to demonstrate:

1. Ability to write well crafted and compelling works of literary merit in prose or poetry.

2. Understanding of craft terms and concepts and the ability to articulate how these aspects of craft contribute to a text’s literary, aesthetic, or emotional effects.

3. Ability to isolate and manipulate craft elements in writing and revising a story, essay, and/or poem.

4. Knowledge of significant currents in contemporary prose or poetry and their antecedents.

5. Ability to identify and analyze the ways in which individual writers operate within, on the edges of, or in response to their literary contexts, predecessors, genres, and historical traditions.

6. Understanding of key goals and outcomes expected of the English major, in particular knowledge of foundational texts of British and American literature.

These are actually program level outcomes, rather than course level outcomes, but this would be a really good place to start building course-level outcomes. The University of Arizona English department uses a portfolio-based approach to assessing these outcomes, collecting best work from all of the required courses, and the faculty reviews the work "...to assess the degree to which the Department is meeting its stated outcomes." They use standardized, objective measures (such as rubrics) and so it is systematic and evidence-based.

The fact that the outcomes assess the success of the Department is an important distinction. Students grades are earned by the student; course (and program) outcomes are measurements not of the student's competency, but of the ability of the course (design, instruction, curriculum, delivery method) to deliver the promised skills.

Outcomes are not mandates to us, the teachers. They are promises to our students. In the business world, and specifically in social services and consulting and other "soft" services, contracts are based on outcomes. Auditors, accreditors and consultants are trained to ask: what are you promising to do, and did you do it?


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©2017 by Joe Cooke