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How learning outcomes harm student imagination

Lecturers who do as they’re told – dutifully aligning their delivery, learning activities and assessment with stated learning outcomes – unwittingly stifle student imagination.

The intention is good. Learning outcomes are the capabilities or skills that a student is expected to have on successful completion of the program. We then construct the delivery and learning activities that enable students to reach the learning outcomes; and finally we create assessments that ask the students to demonstrate that they’ve met the learning outcomes. This agreement between learning outcomes, activities and assessment is known as constructive alignment.

There are great benefits in it. First, we avoid confusing students by teaching one thing and then examining something else. Second, because there are no surprises, students can navigate and plan their studies: the syllabus is in their hands, which is a more student-centred approach to learning rather than a teacher-centred emphasis on delivery. Finally, for any program that leads to professional accreditation, the seamless agreement of learning outcomes, activities and assessment elegantly demonstrates effectiveness in achieving everything that the professional body demands.

What’s not to love? I too have been a proselyte of constructive alignment, believing that it is essential for clarity, effectiveness and responsibility both to students and to the professional world that they enter. Instead of being confused with disparate educational elements thrown together chaotically, students see the criteria and can structure their own learning, empowered by knowing the learning outcomes right down to the fine grain of the marking rubric for each piece of assessment.

As I began writing a book on creativity, however, I became suspicious of constructive alignment, which is now an article of faith throughout the English-speaking world. In fathoming the prerequisites of imaginative growth among students, I became disenchanted with constructive alignment, bringing me to the heretical position that learning outcomes harm creative learning.

Learning outcomes are good for unimaginative programs, fact- or competency-based subjects or units where students legitimately follow a checklist. Under constructive alignment, learning outcomes structurally align with assessment. If students are assessed by how much they’ve achieved the learning outcomes, the learning outcomes must be measurable. And there’s the problem for creativity.

Imagination and creativity are unsuitable as learning outcomes because they cannot be measured by a regular yardstick; nor can they necessarily be taught. Imagination and creativity can be encouraged or discouraged: they are responsive to the academic environment and flourish where they are creatively cultivated; but there’s an ill-fit with their freedoms and the strict alignment of measurable learning outcomes, activities and assessment. Learning outcomes and constructive alignment have the unintended consequence of predicating the learning on mechanical forms of assessment, drawing all activities into proximal relations with assessment and making the educational experience an accessory to assessment.

Alas, assessment is a blunt instrument. It can never subtend the huge potential that students can extract from a course of study, with imaginative detours and burgeoning powers of extrapolation. Under constructive alignment, education is led by the blunt, not by the sharp. The effect on creativity is withering because learning outcomes encourage mechanistic scoping and strategy rather than curiosity.  As a student, my learning is railroaded by proofs of learning. Under the weight of the marking rubric, my learning is micromanaged and I am unlikely to approach it imaginatively.

From the straight-jacket of learning outcomes, I now propose that we revert to teaching objectives for any subject or unit with aspirations to creativity or imagination. Teaching objectives are the statements of what we, as teachers, hope to achieve in guiding our students through an area of syllabus. We backed away from these aspirational objectives because they did not seem student-centred. We turned to learning outcomes because they are supposedly about what the student does.

But paradoxically, teaching objectives gave students more creative freedom. The teacher said: this is the journey that I want to take you on. But you then go on your own journey and tell me where it takes you. There are two journeys: the teacher’s and the student’s. Why collapse them as one?

Let’s revisit these principles of learning and teaching and maximise the scope for student autonomy and imaginative growth.

Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Director, Student Learning Experience, at the Monash Education Academy. He is also the author of Creativity crisis: toward a post-constructivist educational future, put out by Monash University Publishing this year. 

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  1. Peter Kandlbinder

    Your article appears to be based on a misrepresentation of constructive alignment. From the beginning Biggs has argued that the emphasis is on the ‘constructions’ not on the alignment. If the desired outcome is creativity then the task of the educator is to design a ‘web of consistency’ to ensure students arrive at that outcome. Unfortunately too many educators don’t do the important work of identifying the essential constructions and head straight for the alignment.

  2. Igor Bray, Curtin University

    The concept of learning outcomes is an utter nonsense in the tertiary sector. It belongs in kindergartens where the range of desired achievements is relatively small.

    • How sad to see a successful (but certainly self-promoting academic – see his web-page) resort to crass, derisive statements about something that brilliant academics in another field have equally spent a lifetime on. In my experience, nobody does this better than scientists. Professor Biggs’ work will be remembered by many long after yours is forgotten, sir.

  3. Stephen Linquist

    Your article seems to designate constructive alignment which is the normative framework for implementing a pre-existing expectation to use learning outcomes (as the cause) and a return to using learning objectives (as the solution) to a challenge of engendering student imagination (as the problem). When outcomes based education is enacted via a text-book like behaviorist stance and assessment design is dominated by use of traditional summative assessment methods then it is likely that the learning activities and instruction in the unit will be serving agendas related to teaching efficiency and replication. As an academic developer who works day in day with course and unit design/re-designs, your identification of the problem is absolutely necessary, however I would suggest that when academics are able to work with a systems view of the curriculum where each component impacts the adjacent components, it is then possible to formulate creative learning designs which can foster student creativity and imagination.

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