Peter Wolf – Learning outcomes for life: intentional, explicit and practiced

Guest blogger: Peter Wolf

Peter Wolf, Associate Vice Provost, Teaching and Learning, and director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning, Queen’s University.

Learning outcomes have been a key part of my professional life in higher education for the past 25 years. I completed a degree in social work at McGill University way back in the 80’s and haven’t been a social worker for a very long time. While I still can remember some content I learned (remembering what I had for breakfast is enough of a challenge these days!), most enduring is the systems thinking approach I was exposed to in a number of courses and outside-of-class experiences, as well as the importance of compassion, community and the impact of individual and societal empowerment. These outcomes of my undergraduate experience – in other words the knowledge, skills and attitudes imparted – have been useful in almost every aspect of my life.

It took me many years to understand and intentionally use what I learned. It seems clear now that these outcomes were an implicit and intended part of my education; I can only imagine their impact had they been explicitly articulated and practiced during those formative years. Though I certainly needed to create my own meaning of my undergraduate experience, knowing and practicing what was intended would have furthered my ability to make sense of the many seemingly disparate learning experiences that were part of my postsecondary education.

For me, the current learning outcomes movement in Ontario is about trying to ensure that we are providing students with intentional opportunities to develop the enduring knowledge, skills and attitudes that are valued in our programs, institutions and disciplines. I hope that students leave with a set of capacities that will carry them through much of their lives, regardless of whether they use their learning in the specific contexts in which they were taught. And yet, I suspect if you were to ask most students what they think of program outcomes, you would get a lot of blank looks in response. Although understandable, this is also regrettable because generations of students are passing through our hallways as we work through the details of fully engaging with students around learning outcomes.

Admittedly, some pedagogical approaches for grounding learning outcomes are now well-established. For example, co-ops, research courses and community-engaged learning provide great opportunities for consolidating and reflecting on previous learning. Yet intentional opportunities for practice, feedback and meaning-making are not always fully integrated into the curriculum. And although many more approaches are being cultivated – for example, outcomes-based e-portfolios and capstone learning experiences – it is difficult to find well-established outcomes-based teaching and learning approaches embedded throughout many programs.

One emerging area of promise is co-curricular opportunities for students to integrate their own formal and informal learning. At Queen’s University, for example, pilot projects are emerging to provide all students with outcomes-based e-portfolios outside of formal programs and curriculum. This approach does not require formal program engagement and allows for all types of student experiences, academic and otherwise. It is likely to be adopted by many self-directed students and/or those preparing to enter the job market. But only in combination with a more curricular approach to aligning program outcomes within key learning experiences can we help ensure that the academic experience fosters confident, well-educated, reflective and articulate citizens, knowledge creators and knowledge users…our students.

Peter Wolf is the associate vice provost, teaching and learning, and director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University.

Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinions, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.

4 responses to “Peter Wolf – Learning outcomes for life: intentional, explicit and practiced”

  1. Don Presant says:

    Hi Peter:

    Thanks for this great post about the under-recognized value of of mindful learning and integrative reflection.

    Tiny caveat: in my opinion, Co-Curricular Records can be helpful, but can also become narrow checklists, basically spinoffs of campus portals, with little room for authentic reflection, focused on producing a paper transcript that employers don’t really want to see. You’ve probably seen the Trent University study.

    But I’m fascinated by what Alex Ambrose is doing at Notre Dame with ePortfolios, CCR-type records and Mozilla Open Badge micro-credentials. (Think of Open Badges as hardened pieces of evidence inside a modular ePortfolio or Co-Curricular Record.) It’s a more digital vision for a more networked digital age. But the reflection never stops.

    Alex is a member of AAEEBL (Association for Authentic, Experiential Evidence-Based Learning), which is focused on ePortfolios for meta-cognition. Many of these ePortfolios are based on AAC&U’s excellent LEAP Rubrics for “Essential Learning Outcomes” of a liberal education. And many AAEEBL members are now actively experimenting with Open Badge micro-credentials. A Canadian, Tracy Penny Light, (formerly of Waterloo-St. Jerome, now at TRU in BC) is current chair of AAEEBL, and the co-author of a book that is a key resource for the AAEEBL community. I wish more Canadian institutions belonged to this organization.

    In Australia, Deakin University’s Hallmarks GLO program is another one to watch, and in the UK HE sector, Jisc has drawn on its extensive research in ePortfolios and Open Badges to produce a report last November called “Technology for Employability”.

    I’m a true believer and avid watcher of this space. Your ePortfolio pilots sound great, and I look forward to reading more about them in the future.

    • Peter Wolf says:

      Thanks Don,

      I think you have identified some great resources and initiatives to watch. I agree that co-curricular transcripts can be restrictive – Queen’s students rejected having a co-curricular transcript a few years back for this reason, amongst others. And though e-portfolios have promise, I too am excited about the badges movement.
      What is clear is that we are near the beginning of the emergence of tools that encourage the articulation of the synthesis and reflection student learning based on outcomes. I look forward to an increasing range of approaches and tools to support them.
      Now, I am off to look into Deakin University’s Hallmarks GLO program. Thanks for the lead!

  2. […] From Academica Top Ten – Wednesday, January 13, 2016Learning outcomes need to be intentional, practiced, writes Queen’s Associate Vice ProvostAn undergraduate experience offers many valuable learning outcomes, yet students can benefit more from these outcomes when they are clearly stated and practiced, writes Queen’s University’s Peter Wolf for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Looking back on his own experience as an undergraduate, Wolf argues that “though I certainly needed to create my own meaning of my undergraduate experience, knowing and practicing what was intended would have furthered my ability to make sense of the many seemingly disparate learning experiences that were part of my postsecondary education.”  […]

  3. […] seeing signs of life in recent posts by senior leaders in Canadian HE, such as this one by Peter Wolf at Queen’s. And earlier in 2015, Alan Davis, President of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, keynoted at a […]

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