Tag Archives: learning outcomes

Operationalising and assessing sustainability competencies (some ideas from Wiek et al. (2016) and Redman et al. (2020))

We put a lot of effort into teaching for sustainability, but whether or not we are actually successful in doing so remains unclear until we figure out a way to operationalise learning outcomes and, obviously, ways to assess them. Below, I am summarising two articles to get a quick idea of how one might do this.

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Negotiating a rubric of learning outcomes and letting students pick the format in which they show they’ve mastered the learning outcomes

I’m still inspired by Cathy’s work on “co-creation”, and an episode of “Lecture Breakers” (I think the first one on student engagement techniques where they talked about letting students choose the format of the artefact they do for assessment purposes; but I binge-listened, and honestly, they are all inspiring!). And something that Sam recently said stuck with me — sometimes the teacher and the students just have “to play the game”. Assessment is something that needs to happen, and there are certain rules around it that need to be followed, but there are also a lot of things that can be negotiated to come to a consensus that works for everybody. So, as a teacher, just be open about your role in the game and the rules you yourself are bound by and the ones you are open to negotiate, and then start discussing! Anyway, the combination of those three inputs gave me an idea that I would like your feedback on.

Consider you want to teach a certain topic. Traditionally you would ask students to do a certain activity. You have specific learning outcomes you want your students to reach. Whether or not they reach those outcomes, you would evaluate by asking a certain set of questions to see whether they answer them correctly, or maybe by asking them to produce an artefact like an essay or a lab report. And that would be it.

But now consider you tell students that there is this specific topic you want to teach (and why you want to teach it, how it relates to the bigger picture of the discipline and what makes it relevant. Or you could even ask them to figure that out themselves!) and that they will be free to produce any kind of artefact or performance they want for the assessment. Now you could share your learning outcomes and tell them about what learning outcomes matter most to you, and why. And then you could start discussing. Do students agree on the relative importance of learning outcomes that you show in the way you are weighing them? Are there other learning outcomes that they see as relevant that you did not include (yet)?

Once that is settled (possibly by voting, or maybe also coming to a consensus in a discussion, depending on your group and your relationship to them. And of course you can set the boundary conditions that maybe some learning outcomes need to count for at least, or not more, a certain threshold), you are ready for the next important discussion. How could students show that they have mastered a learning outcome? What kind of evidence would they have to produce? What might count as having met the outcome, what would still count as “good enough”?

Now that it’s clear what the learning outcomes are and what they mean in terms of specific skills that will need to be demonstrated, you could let students add one learning outcome that they define themselves and that is related to the format of the artefact that they want to produce (possibly public speaking with confidence when presenting the product, learning to use some software to visualise, or analysing a different dataset than you gave them themselves, …). You could have already included 10% (or however much you think that skill should “be worth”) in the rubric, or negotiate it with students.

While negotiating learning outcomes, students will already have needed to think about how each learning outcome will become visible with their chosen way of presentation, and this should be talked through with you beforehand and/or documented in a meta document, so that a very artistic presentation does not obscure that actual learning has taken place.

How much fun would it be when people can choose to give a talk, do a short video, present a poster, design an infographic, rhyme a science poem, or whatever else they might like? I imagine it would be super motivating. Plus it would help students build a portfolio that shows their subject-specific skills acquired in our class alongside other skills that they think are fun or important to develop. And maybe some artefacts could be used in science communication, engaging other people by hooking them via a format they are interested in, and then maybe they also get interested in the content? I’ve seen hugely creative ideas when we asked students to write blog posts about phenomena we had investigated in the rotating DIYnamics tanks, like a Romeo-and-Juliet-type short novel on two water drops, or an amazing comic — and there they were confined to writing. What if they could also choose to make objects like my pocket wave watching guide, or to perform a play?

I guess it could be overwhelming when the content is very difficult, the task is very big, and students then also have to consider how to show that they learned it, in a way that isn’t pre-determined. Also timing might be important here so this task does not happen at the same time as other deadlines or exams. And obviously when you suggest this to your students, they might still all want to pick the same, or at least a traditional, format, and you would have to be ok with this if you take them seriously in these negotiations. What do you think? What should we consider and look out for when trying to implement something like this?

The structural complexity of learning outcomes

The Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome taxonomy.

I talked about the classification of learning outcomes according to Blooms’s taxonomy recently, and got a lot of feedback from readers that the examples of multiple-choice questions at different Bloom-levels were helpful. So today I want to present a different taxonomy, “Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome”, SOLO, this one classifying the structural complexity of learning outcomes.

SOLO has first been published in 1982 by Biggs and Collis, and the original book is sadly out of print (but available in Chinese). There is a lot of material out there that either describes SOLO or applies it to teaching questions, so you can get a quite good idea of the taxonomy without having read the original source (or so I hope ;-)).
SOLO has four levels of competence: unistructural, multistructional, relational and extended abstract. At the unistructural level, students can identify or name one important aspect. Multistructural then means that the student can describe or list several unconnected important aspects. At the relational level, students can combine several important aspects and analyze, compare and contrast, or explain causes. Lastly at the extended abstract level, students can generalize to a new domain, hence create, reflect or theorize.

Visualization of the different levels of competence in the SOLO taxonomy

While competence is assumed to increase over those four levels, (in fact, there is a fifth, the prestructural, level before those four levels, where the student has completely missed the point), difficulty does not necessarily increase in a similar way.

Depending on how questions are asked, the level of competence that is being tested can be restricted. I am going to walk you through all the levels with an example on waves (following the mosquito example here). For example, asking “What is the name for waves that are higher than twice the significant wave height?” requires only a pre-structural response. There is basically no way to arrive at that answer by going through reasoning at a higher competence level.

Asking “List five different types of waves and outline their characteristics.” requires a multi-structural response. A student could, however, answer at the relational level (by comparing and contrasting properties of those five wave types) or even the extended abstract level (if the classification criteria were not only described, but also critically discussed).

A higher SOLO level would be required to answer this question: “List five different types of waves and discuss the relative risks they pose to shipping.”

At worse, this would require a multi-structural response (listing the five types of waves and the danger each poses to shipping). But a relational response is more likely (for example by picking a criterion, e.g. wave height, and discussing the relative importance of the types of waves regarding that criterion). The question could even be answered at the extended abstract level (by discussing how relevance could be assessed and how the usefulness of the chosen criteria could be assessed). Since the word “relative” is part of the question, we are clearly inviting a relational response.

In order to invite an extended abstract response, one could ask a question like this one:

“Discuss how environmental risks to shipping could be assessed. In your discussion, use different types of waves as examples.”

Is it helpful for your own teaching to think about the levels of competence that you are testing by asking yourself at which SOLO level your questions are aiming, or do you prefer Bloom’s taxonomy? Are you even combining the two? I am currently writing a post comparing SOLO and Bloom, so stay tuned!

Classifying educational goals using Bloom’s taxonomy

How can you classify different levels of skills you want your students to gain from your classes?

Learning objectives are traditionally categorized after Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy. Bloom separates learning objectives in three classes: cognitive, affective and psychomotor. Cognitive learning objectives are about what people know, understand and about their thinking processes dealing with and synthesizing that knowledge. Affective learning objectives are about feelings and emotions. Lastly psychomotor learning objectives are about what people do with their hands. Even though Bloom was trying to combine all three classes, in the context of today’s university education, the focus is clearly on cognitive learning objectives.

Cognitive learning objectives can be divided into sub-categories. From low-level to high-level processes those categories are as follows:

Knowledge Learning gains on this level can for example be tested by asking students to repeat, define or list facts, definitions, or vocabulary.

Comprehension In order to test comprehension, students can for example be asked to describe, determine, demonstrate, explain, translate or discuss.

Application Ability to apply concepts is shown for example by carrying out a procedure, calculating, solving, illustrating, transferring.

Analysis Competency on this level can be tested by asking students to contrast and compare, to analyze, to test, to categorize, to distinguish.

Synthesis Ability to synthesize can be shown by assembling, developing, constructing, designing, organizing or conceiving a product or method.

Evaluation The highest level, evaluation, can be tested by asking students to justify, assess, value, evaluate, appraise or select.

In the next post I’ll talk about how you can use this classification to help with developing good multiple-choice questions, so stay tuned!