The Ruthless Folly of SLOs

by David Clemens

InsideHigherEd.com reports that Biology Professor Robert Dillon was suspended from the College of Charleston for not having acceptable, accreditor-required student learning outcomes (SLOs) on his syllabus. Professor Dillon, in turn, is suing the college and questions the value of SLOs. This contretemps confirms that no matter how misguided SLOs may be, their proponents are ruthless. And accrediting agencies, anxious to appear scientific and corporate, are big proponents.

In my view, Dillon is right and the college cum accreditors are wrong. In The Origin of the Universe and the Origin of Religion, Sir Fred Hoyle writes that “When a starting point is wrong, the more impeccable the logical development the worse the result.” And SLOs’ starting points are spectacularly wrong: 

  • SLO theory holds that all learning is observable which is facially preposterous. Learning is internal and unavailable for analysis.
  • SLO theory holds that all learning is measurable. Some learning (mastery) in some subjects is measurable (mostly CTE and trades) but much learning in many subjects is not measurable (poetry, dance, fine art).
  • SLO theory holds that all learning is immediate. In fact, it can take years for a lesson to be fully realized. The seeds of David Denby’s college lessons on King Lear never flowered until decades later when his own mother became frail, demanding, and tyrannical.
  • SLO theory implies that all learning is permanent. SLOs were supposed to state what, following course completion, a student will be able to do. To make a guarantee of future performance is ill-advised, at best. As a teacher, I can tell you what a student did, but I can’t rationally promise you what a student will do in the future.

SLO theory, in fact, is warmed over behaviorism, not about learning at all, just conditioning. The Pavlov and Skinner crowd are concerned with stimulus and response, input and output, and not with the being that turns the one into the other. Hence, the most glaring of SLOs’ flaws is that they are silent about a major ingredient in learning: the student. That’s why when attainment of SLOs is used in teacher evaluation, it places the blame for student failure solely on the teacher. Maybe that’s the attraction.

A more rational depiction of the teacher-student learning encounter comes from Rob Jenkins in The Chronicle of Higher Education who is talking to students when he writes:

Whether you choose to accept [my] help — ultimately, whether you choose to learn anything — is up to you.

My role is not to tell you what to do, like your shift manager at the fast-food restaurant. Rather, I will provide information, explain how to do certain things, and give you regular assignments and assessments designed to help you internalize that knowledge and master those skills. Internalizing and mastering are your responsibility.

At my college, we face the same SLO juggernaut as Professor Dillon. Of course, teachers must follow orders, but they don’t have to agree or swear belief in those orders. For the last several years, our solution has been to state official course SLOs on our syllabi, but also to include the following disclaimer:

As a credentialed teacher, I want to state my belief that Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) violate both the spirit and the tenets of academic freedom.  I further affirm that my participation in SLO formulation and assessment has been under duress and coerced by threats of institutional probation and/or loss of accreditation.  I believe SLO assessment represents an un-negotiated increase in workload, and in my professional judgment, SLOs have no demonstrable positive effect on learning. They create a fundamental, detrimental change in what I do as a teacher, and it has not been demonstrated that SLOs achieve anything beyond creating an illusion that the student experience can be qualitatively measured. Furthermore, such measurement occurs in terms that may actually be irrelevant or antithetical to real learning.

In this way, obedience and profound dissent are nicely conjoined.

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