You’ve Made a Mistake- Now What??!!

Every person who has ever taught a class has made an error of some sort. Sometimes you know you’ve made one immediately, while sometimes the mistake becomes evident only after a period of time.

I was recently contacted by an adjunct professor who had been provided by her university with a syllabus, lesson plans, assignment instructions, grading rubrics, etc. for a very technical class. One of the assignments had a set of relatively complex instructions. Five weeks into the project, she discovered to her horror that she had interpreted the instructions for the assignment in a certain way, and while half of the class had followed her lead, the other half of the class had interpreted them completely differently. Because of this, this second group was generating work that was different than that of their classmates. How should a professor handle something like this and still be fair to all?

While there were a number of solutions to this specific problem, the key to resolving any problem that arises from a teacher error is to admit to the class that you made a mistake. Give them a brief outline of what happened- they don’t need to know all the details, just enough to give them a picture of what led to the confusion/misunderstanding/error. This shows them that you are on top of it now, and that you understand the necessity of working towards a fair solution. Then present them with that solution, which is just what this professor did.

In this case, the best solution had to strike a balance between what was done by both groups prior to discovery of the error, what the assignment originally intended (learning outcomes), how well the work already done by both groups would achieve the learning outcomes of the assignment, and importantly how the professor wanted to grade the assignment from this point forward.

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Learning Outcomes vs. Goals/Objectives

Is there a difference between the terms “learning outcomes”, “goals”, and “objectives”?

Well, yes.

In reality, these terms are often used interchangeably by educators. We all know what we are talking about when we use these terms, whether we are talking about them in terms of an individual class or an entire departmental curriculum. Although the differences between “goals” and “objectives” are relatively slight, there is in fact an important difference between those terms and “learning outcomes”:

A “goal” is the general result or achievement toward which effort is directed. It implies that you might not get there, as these are only the results you intend to get. (ex. “To gain an understanding of basic composition principals.”)

An “objective” is the specific result or achievement toward which effort is directed. Like “goals”, it also implies that you might not get there, as these are only the results you intend to get. (ex. “To  become familiar with the principals of line, shape, form, contrast, and color in artwork.”)

An “outcome”, on the other hand, is something that follows from an action. It states that you will get there and that there will be evidence of learning that took place. It also outlines the means by which students will achieve the learning. (ex. “Students will demonstrate effective use of the compositional principals of artwork, both graphic and aesthetic, in the creation of a studio project and/or a written research project.”

An “outcome” will also make evident what exactly will be assessed. This is why creating a learning outcome can be so helpful when figuring out what to grade and how to grade it. A well-written learning outcome for a course or a project will initiate the seamless “threading” process that leads a teacher from the outcome to the assignment to the critique to the grading of the work produced.

Please note that both “goals” and “objectives” are usually written with the passive voice. “Outcomes”, on the other hand, are written in the active voice. This difference is clear in the above examples. Verbs like “interpret”, “identify”, “present”, “design”, “analyze”, “apply”, “illustrate”, “explain”, “demonstrate”, and “create” are all very useful when creating a learning outcome statement.

For more information on this subject, the University of Connecticut has published an excellent Assessment Primer that covers these differences in depth.

Examples of Strong and Weak Learning Outcomes

Less Effective:

Students will learn the methods of visual analysis of artwork (in terms of form, color, line, etc.)

Better:

Students will demonstrate their ability to conduct visual analysis (in terms of form, color, line, etc.) through oral and written exercises.

 

Less Effective:

Students will gain a greater understanding of the human body through observation and modeling three-dimensional form in space.

Better:

Students will demonstrate a greater understanding of the human body by observing and creating three-dimensional figurative forms.

 

Less Effective:

Students will learn to draw in perspective, use correct proportions, and how to use value and contrast.

Better:

Students will evaluate and draw objects using correct proportion, perspective, and lighting (value/contrast).

 

Less Effective:

Students will learn the principles of good composition.

Better:

Students will create effective compositions in their paintings utilizing design (or compositional) principles such as line, shape, form, hue, and perspective.

 

 Less Effective:

Students will gain a facility in handling the equipment, materials & processes of DSLR photography.

Better:

Students will demonstrate a facility with digital SLR cameras and printing processes through the production of a portfolio of photographic prints.

Formulating a Learning Outcome

In order to figure out what a learning outcome for a course or assignment might be, start by asking yourself: “What kind of measurable and observable knowledge, skills, abilities, or attitudes should students be competent in by the end of this experience?” AND “Through what means will they achieve those outcomes?”

Your learning outcomes should answer those two questions.

The key to writing a strong learning outcome is using verbs that indicate higher order thinking skills. Here are a few examples:

Derive, Design, Formulate, Frame, Predict, Interpret, Evaluate, Demonstrate, Analyze, Synthsize, Create, Identify, Compare, Explain

Less Effective Example of a Learning Outcome:

“Students will learn the art of critical thinking.”

A Better Example of the Same Thing:

“Students will be able to think critically by effectively analyzing assigned readings and evaluating the views of fellow students  both verbally and in writing.”

The better example contains both observable abilities (thinking critically) as well as a description of the means by which they will prove their competency (verbally and in writing). Including the latter is important because that is a product that you can grade, which is the “measurable” part of the learning outcome.

Things to Consider When Planning an Assignment

Is the assignment /project consistent with the learning outcomes for the class? Have you adequately communicated to the students how it fits into the large context of the class?

What skills must be demonstrated in the completion of the assignment?  How much (if at all) does it engage student creativity?

How realistic is the level of stringency of the assignment?  Are the students equipped with the expertise to handle it? (Don’t give freshmen a senior level project and expect success.)

How clear have you made your expectations/criteria for grading? Do you have a specific ‘vision’ for how the project should turn out?  Have you communicated this to your students?

How realistic is the time-demand of the assignment? Remember that they are taking other classes, too!

Syllabus for Teaching TAs How to Teach (Quarter version)

Any Fine Arts or Art History graduate student who wants to teach a class in the University of Cincinnati’s School of Art must successfully complete the “Graduate Teaching Workshop” course before receiving any teaching assignment. (This is true for TAs who assist a professor in the classroom, as well as for TAs who are assigned full responsibility for the teaching of a course.) This is the syllabus for that course.

Because UC is currently on the quarter system, this syllabus reflects a 10-week experience. When UC moves to semesters in the Fall of 2012, the syllabus will be revised to reflect a 14-week experience. In semesters, more time will be spent on pedagogical theory, guiding and evaluating group work, and how to effectively critique art work. I will post that updated syllabus in the Fall of 2012.

Elements of a Syllabus

Most universities and colleges have requirements of some kind for what should be in a syllabus. Some even require faculty to use a certain format. Before writing yours, inquire as to the requirements of your institution. Generally, the following elements are contained in most syllabi. Keep in mind that the syllabus is a contract between you and your students.

Top of First Page:

• Instructor name and contact information

• Course Title, number and section

• Time of course (days, quarter), room location

• Prerequisites of the course, if any

Course Learning Outcomes

• Give a clear and brief description of the overall educational outcomes of the course.

• Describe in general terms what the students will be able to do as a result of

having taken the course. Use action verbs for this. (e.g. by learning certain

skills, making presentations, etc.). In other words, by doing certain things,

they will learn to do something that will allow them to achieve the goals of

the course.

Course Description

• Can include general thoughts about the character or “philosophy” of the course. 

• Includes content of the course and a general description of activities/projects.

 

Course Projects & Activities

•  Major projects/assignments/activities are listed and described, including their purpose and due dates. (If you hand out separate instruction sheets for an assignment, project, or activity, then this section needn’t be too detailed. If not, then include those details here.)

• Briefly describe homework exercises, and activities such as field trips, presentations, working in groups, etc. as appropriate to the course.

Materials and Supplies List

• Include all materials needed for the course (textbooks, art supplies).

• Include costs of materials, if possible. List any supplies provided by you that are paid for from their materials fee. Recommend sources and list prices for these materials, if you wish.

Course Schedule

• Create a schedule of topics/activities for each class session. Include project names and their due dates, homework, critiques, demos, lecture, etc. Note that it is subject to change.

Evaluation

• Clearly describe how the final grade will be determined.

• Clearly describe any policies that might be important to you when  evaluating student performance. These might include how or if students can earn extra credit, any “do-over” policies for exams or assignments, etc.

• Often contains clearly described general grading criteria. This means that you describe what an “A” means, “B”, “C”, etc.


Class Policies (Attendance and Class Participation)

• Describe your attendance policy. When is someone “late” to class? Will there be consequences for coming to class late or leaving class early? Is someone who sleeps during class going to be counted as present?

• Describe classroom rules–what types of things do you allow or not allow in the classroom? Are iPods/cell phones/computers allowed? What will you do if someone is disruptive or sleeping during class? How do you feel about talking during class?

• If you are giving them a class participation grade, explain what will count towards that grade. (Talking in class? Doing homework? Going on field trips? Volunteering? Etc.)


Other Miscellaneous Items:

• A reading list

• A description of technology to be used in the course and why

• Additional expectations or activities not already addressed

• Inspirational jokes, quotes, poems, images, etc.

• Safety information

• Contact info for help with learning disabilities

• Policy on academic honesty