Outcomes-Based Learning: What It Is and What It Means to You

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  • For those returning to graduate school after being out of the educational environment for some time, the changes in how education is delivered and evaluated might be surprising. In many programs, the old model of teaching, in which students were presented with information and graded on their ability to understand and retain that information, has been replaced with an outcomes-based learning model.

    Outcomes-based learning, in the simplest terms, is an assessment in which students demonstrate that they have learned the designated skills and information, as determined by the program’s administrators. Outcomes are a set of goals or standards; anyone who graduates from that particular degree program will be able to demonstrate certain core competencies. In essence, an outcomes-based model is less focused on the memorization of facts and figures and more geared toward students applying the knowledge they have gained.

    Outcomes in the Graduate Environment

    Until the last five years or so, outcomes-based models of learning were limited to the primary grades, where students learned basic concepts through team-based, holistic or project-based learning. Graduate programs were largely immune to the shift.

    However, competition for students has brought outcomes to the graduate level. In most cases, the accrediting agencies that evaluate the quality and standards of graduate programs are demanding that graduate programs develop a comprehensive list of assessments for students.

    While some administrators and educators have resisted this shift, it does create a more transparent and easy-to-understand educational environment. By developing a comprehensive set of learning outcomes for healthcare administration degree programs, for example, students, faculty and potential employers can see, at a glance, what students should know when they finish the program that will prepare them for careers in the field.

    What Learning Outcomes Mean to You

    Students enrolled in outcomes-based programs will likely see the outcomes expressed in the objectives listed on their course syllabi. Everything that they do in class, from reading to discussions to case-study assignments will relate back to the learning outcomes.

    You might also notice that your courses focus on applying knowledge and that they each build upon the foundation of previous courses. Most learning outcomes are based upon a combination of factors, including knowledge, understanding, analysis, application, synthesis and evaluation. Taken either on their own or in combination with each other, these areas form the backbone of the goals of the program; for example, a learning outcome might be that a student in health care management will be able to perform financial analysis and provide interpretation and recommendations based on that analysis.

    Such an outcome combines aspects of knowledge, analysis and evaluation, and better prepares students for healthcare management jobs than offering courses in financial analysis and setting a minimum passing grade. It’s no longer enough to just do the exercises and pass the class. Students must be able to understand and apply their knowledge.

    Using Learning Outcomes

    As a prospective student, the stated learning outcomes of a graduate program are a valuable tool for evaluating and choosing the program that’s right for you. Most graduate schools list their learning outcomes in their promotional literature or on their website; some will include overarching outcomes expected from all students in all programs, such as critical thinking, communication or social engagement and service as well as outcomes that are program specific. By reviewing these listed outcomes, you can determine whether a particular program aligns with your personal goals, in addition to knowing what to expect while you are completing your studies.

    Outcomes-based learning has become the standard in educational evaluation, from kindergarten through postgraduate work. Knowing how you will be evaluated during your studies and what you can expect after you earn your master’s degree is an important part of choosing the right program. It also helps ensure your success in grad school.

    About the Author: A former teacher, Rose Patrick began working within an outcomes-based model of education in the mid-1990s. She has since switched careers and is working toward a master’s of health care administration.

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    • Montgomery

      I never understood learning outcomes while I was in school so long ago. It makes a lot of sense when I stop and give it serious thought.

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