Outcomes based Teaching and Learning

Constellations Issue 2

DIVYATA RAUT & LAVINIA TANG

Dec 6, 2018 | Articles

Students, get ready to see your modules in a different light very soon. Nanyang Technological University is taking considerable measures to fine-tune its academic curriculum structure to heighten students’ interest in their modules. You will gain greater control over your module planning and course selection by accessing the module learning outcomes via NTU Learn. This is why the University’s Teaching, Learning and Pedagogy Division (TLPD) is in the process of rolling out Outcomes Based Teaching and Learning (OBTL) for all of NTU’s modules by 2020.

OBTL is a curriculum structure that requires educators to inform students about the specific details of their educational goals before they start the course itself. This greater emphasis on learning outcomes means that students will be introduced to the precise skills that each course will equip them with. However inconsequential this minor change might feel, these outcomes give students a roadmap that guides them from the start to the end of the course.

Why is it so important to know the learning outcomes before the course begins? Clarifying outcomes through pointers like “By the end of the course, you will learn the following skills… ” gives students faith in the quality of their educational experience at NTU with a tangible list of skills learnt. With this new curriculum structure, students stand to reap greater benefits as they have a clearer understanding of the exact skill set their modules have equipped them with. The OBTL movement has been in the works for the past two years at NTU and focuses less on the specific content that the educator aims to cover in their courses, and more on the exact skills that students can confidently take away with them. The learning outcomes also address the 5 C’s that the University aims to instill in all students by the end of their academic programme: Character, Civic-mindedness, Creativity, Competence and Communication.

In order to help professors align their courses’ learning outcomes with appropriate assessments, TLPD takes on an advisory role for the various faculties in NTU. Dr. Peter Looker, Head of TLPD, tells Constellations, “Going to University is not just about memorising things. This initiative ensures that students will be able to critically evaluate exactly what they can do as students.” He believes that in order to gauge the true capacity of students, it is crucial to include higher-order thinking skills in the list of learning outcomes.

To test this belief, Dr. Looker has conducted focus groups to examine the success-rate of OBTL, and has found that most students respond well to knowing the learning outcomes. It gives them more confidence when approaching the module as they know the precise skills they will be equipped with. “It is not just a formal addition, it has meaning,” he explains. Furthermore, he tells Constellations that the addition of OBTL to the curriculum structure will promote stronger alignment between a course’s assessments and its educational goals. This alignment coaxes educators to think strategically about appropriate assessments in order to maintain good learning outcomes for their students.

Moreover, educators themselves can have stronger control over the content of the module since OBTL serves as a constant reminder of the concepts that students are learning. Educators will be better aware of the desired final outcome of the course, and the learning outcomes can therefore help to ensure the quality of every lesson.

TLPD hopes to clear misconceptions about OBTL by guiding new and old faculty members during their transition to OBTL. The members of the TLPD provide faculty members with an array of resources and assistance, helping to bridge the gap between a professor’s expertise and their students’ learning. Therefore, the driving force for TLPD will always be centred on students’ learning. TLPD hopes that NTU’s academic structure nurtures students to bloom into skilled and innovative professionals in their respective fields by being responsible individuals in society.

TLPD holds workshops and conferences for faculty members with hands-on activities that help professors overcome the misconception that OBTL is merely a paper exercise. Dr. Sophia Tan and Dr. Jason Lee from TLPD work closely with the NTU School of Humanities staff to demonstrate to them that OBTL is a great foundation for transforming students’ learning.

Both Dr. Lee and Dr. Tan assert that it has been rewarding to receive positive feedback from professors on how OBTL has helped to improve learning, despite some resistance to the changes. They liken OBTL to a lens that helps professors to see their modules anew and innovate their assessment accordingly, leading to improved outcomes. This is especially useful when professors have been teaching a certain module for a long time.

Could this transform learning in NTU? Definitely. OBTL is a phase-by-phase movement that is here to stay. Best summarised by Dr. Lee, “OBTL is essentially about putting students’ learning first and making it meaningful”.

Apart from the top-down approach, the OBTL team is also interested in understanding what makes students want to attend lectures regularly and actively participate in tutorials and seminars. Thus, the next phase will kick-start a pilot study to discover ways of improving the current academic framework as well as the effects of the first phase of OBTL. One thing is for sure — OBTL is slowly but surely gaining traction as a growing initiative that is here to stay and will improve the academic experience of students in NTU.

Common Questions about OBTL

Q. Do students really read course outlines?

Students find the course outline important and will surely refer to it in order to plan their studies, proceed with examination preparation, and understand learning outcomes, grading criteria and weighting. Tasreen Kaur, a Year 2 English student from SoH, says, “The specified learning outcomes can be useful in streamlining students’ focus in class. Students will be better aware of the points they should be looking out for during lessons in order to strengthen the skills they hope ti acquire through the modules they take.”

Q. Is OBTL just a “paper exercise”?

This is not just a paper exercise for educators, as documenting desired learning outcomes will encourage professors to go through a critical process of thoughts and question as they evaluate their modules. This process will help to guide and facilitate their teaching. Professors and students will be on the same page in terms of learning outcomes and expectations from the course.

Q. Does this mean less flexibility over the syllabus for educators?

Contrary to what educators might believe, professors will still have autonomy over their modules. The OBTL outline does not overpower the nature of the assessments. It simply germinates a process that helps educators to relate their assigned materials to the work they are giving to the students.