More Dissonance: Reconciling Emergent Learning and Student Learning Outcomes Assessment

I am, in part, responsible for implementing outcomes assessment at my institution and I am increasingly convinced that we in higher education should value and encourage emergent learning, that learning that occurs in between the formal spaces. Hussey and Smith noted, “It is one of the ironies of the current context of higher education that monitoring and assurance systems should be generating veritable bureaucracies within institutions at the same time as policy has discovered, and is celebrating learner autonomy, independence and lifelong learning.” Added irony is that my institution is one that has always embraced learner autonomy, independence and lifelong learning and values open education.

Hussey and Smith go on to offer a possible pathway. “Let us be clear, we are not arguing that learning outcomes should be abandoned, only that there are serious faults with current ideas about their use. We hold that learning outcomes can be framed only in general terms and should be used with flexibility so that they can include those that emerge in the practical realities of teaching.”

I see promise in outcomes framed broadly and flexibly and that honor the values and purpose of the college. The work of AAC&U and the LEAP initiative are helpful in thinking broadly. This allows us to define the what – without being overly prescriptive and still value the diversity of approaches to learning and goals of students. It also allows us to support open education by not closing down the curriculum as the outcomes that are defined will indeed define the curriculum.

They go a bit further in saying that we ought to establish as learning outcomes even those things that are difficult to measure. “It follows that the greater the students’ involvement in and with the learning, the greater the possibility of different learning outcomes emerging. …we propose that those who teach should begin to reclaim learning outcomes and begin to frame them more broadly and flexibly, to allow for demonstrations and expressions of appreciation, enjoyment and even pleasure, in the full knowledge that such outcomes pose problems for assessment.” I like it, but as the adage goes, you don’t change what you don’t measure, so we need ideas about how to measure these sorts of things. And yes, I would be looking for valid reliable assessments that are not easy to pull apart.

I certainly have more questions than answers at this point. If emergent learning is valued and something that we cannot really predict, then what should the we say is the goal for our learners? Is it something to do with discovery and creativity in designing their learning? Is about continuous reflection and retrospective analysis of learning both within and outside of the course? What captures this notion so that the goal is blatantly stated and our students know that we value their discoveries and diversions? What about those things that are hard to measure?

Please share your thoughts.

Hussey, T and Smith P (2003) “The Uses of Learning Outcomes” in Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 357–368 retrieved from



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