Student Learning Outcomes Monologue Part VI

Course Intentions

When I created the "Instructor Intentions" section of the PE 101j and MS 150 outlines, I knew that these sections were misnamed. Thanks to a suggestion of a member of my division, these are now being renamed "Course Intentions."

There is, however, a more fundamental question surrounding this section. Does this section belong on the outline at all? In the PE 101j outline this section carries the statement Students will have an opportunity to experience the joys of aerobic exercise: the feelings of strength, energy, and stress release. The MS 150 outline carries the following two statements in the course intentions section:

These are color-coded as conditions because they also describe some of the conditions under which the performance of the above outcomes will occur. While the actual student learning outcomes themselves refer to spreadsheet software, the course intentions section notes that the specific software is Microsoft Excel. This section also notes that course also intends to use real-world data to the extent possible. This is definitely not a "Students will be able to..." student learning outcome. This later statement sounds to me to be akin to Catherine Good's statement for her ESL 079 class where the course intention is to use materials from subsequent courses, at least to the extent possible and practical.

The concern voiced by the member of my division is that this section could contain statements that impinge on how the course is taught. This imposition would constitute infringement of academic freedom. As the member put it, "Tell me what to teach but not how to teach it".

What should be in the outline?

The above connects directly to the same faculty member's concern as to what is actually included in the outline. For this person, the outline should contain only the program and student learning outcomes. The outline should not include course intentions, textbook, grading schemes, or any of the other sections that are currently in our outlines.

I would aver and suggest that while the above might all belong in appendices, ultimately Quly needs a single pack of paper she can pull out of a filing cabinet, xerox, and hand to an instructor or fax to a state campus with all of the information necessary to run the course. Or, more twenty-first century, a single web page an instructor can view with all of the pertinent information including textbook and design intent notes.


The PE 101j statement Students will value physical activity and its contribution to a healthful lifestyle has also attracted attention. The question has arisen, at least in the context of mathematics courses, whether there should be any "values" outcomes. The assertion has been made that outcomes can only specify what a student should "know or do" but not what they should value. I counter by noting that while it might be the case that mathematics can and should be rather value neutral, there may be courses in fields such as special education where a desired outcome is, "Students will value the unique individuality of each and every student."

I do, however, see the difficulties. Values are hard to measure, visions of Likert scale self-inventories come to mind. And what have you measured there? The students's ability to answer a questionnaire in the way the instructor expects them to answer the questionnaire?

When I did my research on math program outcomes I came across the following recommendations:

I tossed both of these out. I hated mathematics when I was school. I celebrated when I had finally finished my last required math course, an advanced calculus course. I was so happy at the thought that I would never again have to take a math class. A year later I lost what little was left of my mind and took a 300 level course in complex variables. The very next term I took a 300 level class in linear algebra. And now I teach mathematics. While I hope I convey some of the excitement of doing math, if the students hate math then that is their choice. I am only marking them on what they know or can do.

That said, PE 101j includes a values outcome that comes directly from the outcomes recommended by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education in 1986 and later incorporated into the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance recommendations (NASPE is now a part of AAHPERD):

"A Physically Educated Person:"

As I noted in a budget hearing, whether or not someone can solve a quadratic equation at 43 years old is not going to have a significant impact on their perceived quality of life. Their physical health however, will be a very real factor in their perceived quality of life. In this sense PE 101j is far more relevant and important than MS 100 College Algebra. While a math instructor might hope their students retain what they learn for life, the actual fact is that even some of the scientists in my division would struggle with finding imaginary roots to a quadratic equation.

On the other hand, PE 101j has exactly that intent: that the students will continue to "do" physical exercise for life. I do want that the students will value physical activity and its contribution to a heathful lifestyle. Do not get confused: this is not an instructor desire or course intention. A math instructor wants their students to be able to add, but that does not disqualify the ability to add from being a student learning outcome!

Other programs and courses will also have value statements. One can envision them occurring in art appreciation, music, or poetry.

If one accepts that some programs will have value statements, then one is ready to wrestle with the next part of the problem. How does one measure the outcome? In the PE 101j outline I actually do not have any course level outcomes under this program outcome. The only measurement I can think of for this one is a Likert scale questionnaire. My concern, however, is that any Likert scale questionnaire will degenerate into a test of whether the students can figure out what I think is the right answer.

Even once one decides to measure a values outcome (and measure one must under the paradigm!), how does a values outcome weigh into a grading scheme, if at all? Bear in mind that there is a thread of thinking that says competence comes with achieving all of the specified outcomes.

This goes back to the doctor who received a 94% on his or her medical exam: what 6% did he or she miss? In some implementations, students are retaught until they achieve competence. Education is looking at this approach in order to certify that the teachers they produce are "competent".

In a course such as statistics I cannot see how 100% is ever attained. I originally defined any skill appearing on the final examination as a core competence. But this meant a student had to attain a 100% perfect final in order to pass the class. I end run around the need for the unattainable "100%" perfect final examination by setting up core and peripheral outcomes. I all ready know I will have to pare down the core outcomes or no one will pass MS 150 Statistics ever again. I will also have to allow some flexibility for a student to miss a core outcome on the final that they may have previously achieved.

Of course flexibility puts me back where I started with the 6% level of ignorance. And over-flexibility may impinge on quality in some locations. It's a mess no matter what I do. Augh. At this point one should quit reading this and pick up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The rest of this quality discussion, were I to pursue it, would require understanding definitions I take from that text. So I won't pursue it.

Thus I now have an outcome I am not measuring. The suggestion has been made to delete the outcome as it is a) a value statement and b) not even measured. Yet I view this outcome as, if achieved, critically important. I would argue that the outline loses meaning without this outcome. I would also note that national organizations such as AAHPERD concur with this outcome. Take away all the "students will value" outcomes and many courses become "communistic grey" machines that grind out "know and do" outcomes like some sort of Chaplinesque Metropolis machine.

Math specific program outcome issue

The outcome "explore mathematical systems utilizing rich experiences that encourage independent, nontrivial, constructive exploration in mathematics." was derived from the MS/ED 110 general objectives. A similar outcome existed in my 1996 experimental conceptual mathematics course. This outcome has been questioned as to its measurability and as to whether it is properly a learning outcome or a course intention.

The outcome is a modification of the IMACC outcome Students will engage in rich experiences that encourage independent, nontrivial exploration in mathematics, develop and reinforce tenacity and confidence in their abilities to use mathematics, and inspire them to pursue the study of mathematics and related disciplines. This outcome is part of the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC) adopted Crossroads in Mathematics standards. AMATYC is to two-year colleges as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards are to K-12. The addition of the word "constructive" came directly from the general objectives of the proposed MS/ED 110 Math for Teachers 1 prepared by Yen-ti in our division.

While I feel the outcome is an appropriate program level outcome, certainly not all courses will include course level outcomes that support this program level outcome. It might be the case that only one or two courses will support this outcome. Which then raises the question as to whether a program outcome is met if only some students will ever come into contact with the supporting courses outcomes. Only education majors will take MS/ED 110. I do not have the answer to this; only that I, AMATYC, and NCTM all support having a constructive approach outcome at the program level. I, like many other math instructors, do not necessarily produce support for this outcome. Heck, I lecture everyday in MS 150 Statistics, a pedagogical opposite to exploration and guided discovery.

End Piece

I plan to take the PE 101j Joggling and MS 150 Statistics outlines to the December curriculum committee meeting. Approval of these outlines will de facto approve the program outcomes, unless the curriculum committee decides to separate the program outcomes approval process from the outlines approval process.

At this point I do not intend to tackle science program outcomes until Spring. There will be four different sets of programs outcomes: science courses that serve primarily the general education requirements, upper-level science courses that serve primarily health, nursing, and pre-medical students (SC 122a, Sc 122b, SC 180, SC 230), marine science courses, and the HCOP program. I will need the help and assistance of the science faculty on these. In fact, I will look to the marine science faculty to develop their own program level outcomes in association with their redeveloped outlines.

I am hopeful that the developmental math courses can utilize outcomes similar to those I am proposing for college level mathematics. I look to Gregg, Ray, and Yen-ti to either opt to adopt the college math program outcomes or to develop their own program level outcomes.

The following monologues precede this one: