My Real Student Learning Outcomes

Pretty much anyone involved with higher education knows about Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs).  If you teach in the public middle or high school system, you know about state standards.  In both cases, these are essentially descriptions of what students will either know or be able to do once they have finished a particular class.  They can range from something related to content knowledge (Students will be able to recite Pi to 83 places) to a particular skill (Students will be able to add two pages of meaningless writing to a ten page paper without anyone being able to tell).

It’s not difficult to make fun of SLOs, as they’re often terribly specific and, despite the assertions to the contrary, almost impossible to truly measure.  Even when we can measure them, we don’t check in with students a year after the class to see if they can still recall the content knowledge they supposedly learned.  And I’ve read enough papers from students I taught in a first-year writing class to see that, two years later, they’ve completely forgotten to use an actual thesis sentence, despite their having done so for every paper for my class (note that our SLOs don’t measure students’ ability to transfer knowledge/skills to different situations).

Thus, when I’m honest with myself and my students, I admit that I really only have two goals for my students, maybe three, depending on the class I’m teaching.

First, I hope they’ll keep reading long after the class is over.  I told the 400-level class I’m teaching this year about my goal, as I know that most English majors aren’t actually going to end up teaching or going to graduate school.  Thus, I want to engage them in works so that, when they are thirty or forty or sixty, they won’t be one of the 27% of Americans who didn’t read a book last year, according to Smithsonian.com.  In that 400-level class, for example, they each have to choose a contemporary novel (the class is Contemporary Literature) to present on at the end of the year.  I give them a list of around fifty or so books to choose from, and I tell them that they’ll learn about the one they read, plus hear about the 15-20 their peers talk about, some of which will interest them, I hope.

What really warms my heart, though, is when I get an email from a student or see a student on Facebook five or ten years down the road, and they’re reading one of those books or another book by one of those authors.  If I can have moments like that on a regular basis, I’ll know that one of my main goals continues to be met.

Next, I want them to continue thinking.  Let’s be honest, “critical thinking” has become a buzz phrase (if such a thing exists) in all levels of education.  It’s easy for anyone to drop that phrase into a conversation (or their SLOs) and convince others that true thinking is happening in their classes.  That’s usually not the case, though, as our assignments and exams continue to ask for students to simply spit back some version of what we’ve told them.

At its heart, though, critical thinking really is what I want my students to be able to do years down the road, and that means that they’ll be able to think through situations or analyze what they hear (or read or see) and put forth a coherent response, whether in agreement or not, that goes beyond mere regurgitation.  They can take disparate pieces of information and combine them to come up with a new idea, creating something new from what already exists.  In a society where more and more people simply parrot back what they hear from the biased sources they encounter, I want students to be able to think for themselves.

Last, they’ll keep writing.  I mainly think of this for the creative writing classes I teach.  It breaks my heart when I encounter a talented writer a semester or year after they’ve had one of my classes, and they tell me they’re not writing.  They usually explain, perhaps rightly so, that they just don’t have time with all of their other classes.  Life will always be busy, though, so I spend time in classes talking about building habits of writing, and I force them to write something on a regular basis in those classes, try to help them develop the discipline they need.

However, I’ve begun to think this goal shouldn’t just be for those who take the specifically writing classes.  I don’t particularly care if people keep writing literary analyses, of course, but there is a benefit to some sort of sustained writing after college.  Writing is one of the best ways of processing the world, of continuing to develop one’s thinking.  To sit down and write an essay or blog post or even detailed journal entry, one has to think through whatever subject she or he is writing on.  That might be why I’ve kept doing this blog; it helps me think through my approach to teaching.

Honestly, I believe students forget most of what we supposedly teach them.  They’re not going to remember the dates of the Enlightenment or the four characteristics of the gothic or how certain molecules react when they encounter one another.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about such ideas/facts with students, but their learning such information is far from my primary goal.  I want a world of readers, thinkers, and writers.  As such, I should structure my classes to try to create such people.

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