Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Students' Learning Outcomes

An Outcomes-Based Assessment Model

Outcomes-based assessment has become the go-to model for assessment practices in education from elementary schools through post-graduate programs.  However, there is a weakness in the model.


What's missing from the model is a level of alignment and an opportunity for feedback from students about what students want to gain or achieve by the time they reach graduation.

Outcomes-Based Assessment Model Overview

To give a quick overview, institutions have goals, abilities and qualities they want students to have by the time they reach graduation.  Schools and disciplines or departments have goals, too, which are more specific abilities and qualities for students to demonstrate by the time they graduate from that particular school, discipline, or department.  The abilities and qualities institutions, schools, disciplines or departments want students to gain are taught and assessed in specific classes.

Class goals align with departmental or discipline goals, which align to goals of a particular school, which align with the institution's broad goals for all students.   In that way, each individual class clearly helps students move closer to an achievement of proficiency in the departmental or discipline goals and outcomes, and the institutional goals and outcomes, concurrently.

The Students' Goals

This is an effective model for assessment, no doubt.  In this model, though,  I see the potential for an institution to ignore, either intentionally or unintentionally, the goals of the students.  Theoretically, students accept as their own the outcomes set forth in the courses, departments or disciplines, schools, and institutions they choose.  When the outcomes determined by faculty, administrators and stakeholders do not align with the abilities and qualities the students want to achieve, however, where in the model do the students have an opportunity to offer feedback?

Of course, faculty can ascertain this type of misalignment within individual courses, but generally do not have the authority to change the outcomes or goals that are assigned a particular course because of the consistency required for assessment.  Administrators and stakeholders may hear from some students and faculty about any misalignment, but such anecdotal information is not statistically relevant enough to overhaul institutional goals and outcomes.

Program Review

The answer may lie in the program review process.  Indirect data collected via surveys sent to students, graduates, faculty, staff, and employers could be used to gather evidence of any misalignment between or among the institution's, school's, discipline or department's goals and outcomes and the students' goals.  This type of data, unlike anecdotal evidence, may be statistically significant enough to encourage changes to any outdated or otherwise irrelevant goals, from bottom (course goals and outcomes) to top, or from top (institutional goals and outcomes) to bottom.

This type of survey data must become common practice, part of standard procedures for program review, if an institution wants its goals and stated outcomes to remain relevant in a changing world. Students' goals, their requests to learn specific abilities and gain specific qualities, should not be ignored, but should become part of an institution's annual assessment practices.

Want to read more about teaching and assessment?  Try

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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Common Errors to Avoid: Pronoun Shifts and Confusing Antecedents

A sentence diagram that clearly points out the shift in pronoun case between one clause and another.
Avoid Shifting Pronouns to Avoid Clarity Errors

The use of pronouns can be a tricky thing, but errors can be avoided if you always check your antecedents.

The first common error that can be avoided by checking your antecedents is an inconsistent point of view.  The second common error is the use of a vague or ambiguous reference.

Point of View and Pronoun Shift

The point of view is the "relative position from which something is seen or a subject is considered" (Shaw 358). When this point of view changes, it can make your writing a bit confusing for a reader to understand, and that's never a good thing.

Take the following sentence, for example, which includes a shift in number: "A puppy can bring a person a lot of joy, but they are also a lot of work."  Can you see it?  The pronoun in the sentence is "they," which is plural.  However, it's antecedent, or the word it refers to, is "puppy," which is singular.

The sentence needs to be corrected for the shift in number in order to clarify the pronoun-antecedent relationship: "A puppy can bring a person a lot of joy, but a puppy is also a lot of work," or "A puppy can bring a person a lot of joy, but he is also a lot of work."

Another type of pronoun shift is class or formality.  For example, instead of writing "One should always return library books on time if you want to avoid fees," maintain either the third person or the second person throughout the sentence.  To correct it you could write, "One should always return library books on time if one wants to avoid fees," or "You should always return library books on time if you want to avoid fees."

Vague or Ambiguous Pronouns

We call a sentence or phrase ambiguous when there are multiple meanings to choose from, but we don't know which meaning the writer means for us to choose. We say a sentence or phrase is vague when meaning is implied, or if we can't figure out any meaning.   Here are some examples:

Ambiguous: "The veterinarian took the puppies and kittens from the pet carriers and placed them on the floor."  The pronoun in the sentence is "them," but we aren't sure if "them" refers to the puppies, the kittens, or the pet carriers.  What was placed on the floor?  There are three different words in the sentence from which to choose, but the antecedent is ambiguous, so we just do not know.

In order to clarify our meaning we can say, "The veterinarian took the puppies and kittens from the pet carriers and placed the carriers on the floor."

Vague: "They have great desserts in Canada."  If the writer means to say that Canadians make great desserts, she should use "Canadians" as the subject of her sentence.  However, because the antecedent to the sentence is implied, does not appear in the sentence, she might also mean something else, like "restaurants," "French bakeries," or some other unknown subject.  We simply do not know because the antecedent, the meaning of the pronoun, is missing.  To correct the sentence the writer should use a specific noun as the subject instead of using a pronoun, which is a good rule of thumb for all sentences.

Revision and editing take time and practice, but if you know what to look for when checking your pronouns and antecedents, the process can be made much easier.  Always check your pronouns for shifts in case or number and for vague or ambiguous antecedents.

Works Cited

Shaw, Harry. A Complete Course in Freshman English. 2nd revised ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940. Print.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.