19 November 2008

On less being more at Master's level

I have been on a validation panel today, grappling with the problem of how to specify modules at Master's level. It was very instructive.

The team developing the programme had understandably assumed that outcomes for a Master's level module would have to be more tightly specified than for a lower level course, in order to ensure that the learning and the assessment would be at greater “depth” than for an undergraduate module.

First, though, it is quite easy to specify “learning outcomes” for low-level courses. When people are learning the basics of any subject or skill, what any one person learns will have to be the same as any other learner. It's easy to assess, and “correct” knowledge or performance is clear-cut. It's not so easy at higher levels. Knowledge and “understanding” (not to mention, for those who care, the higher regions of Bloom, or Krathwohl and Anderson) may be contestable, and indeed one person's understanding or “take” on the subject may quite legitimately be different from their neightbour's. So when you get to Master's level it may be reasonable to specify that the outcomes will include so-and-so, but it may well be patronising and simply counter-productive to presume to set them out completely and exhaustively.

Even so, how do you incorporate the academic level requirements into the outcomes? It's traditional to use all those recommended “Bloom verbs” to produce “SMART” objectives. (What's the difference between an objective and an outcome, in this context? Strictly between ourselves, I no longer have to pretend that I know, and I don't care.) So the first-year students “list” or “describe”, the second-years “analyse” and the third-years “evaluate”... So Master's students? They “critically evaluate”, it seems. (That means in practice that they evaluate on the basis of one or more over-arching frameworks, showing that there are no simple answers.)

That is fair enough but it does risk becoming formulaic, and also implying that there is a correct procedure for doing it. The more specific the directions, the more restricted the outcomes, and the less the scope for the exercise of individual initiative and creativity (if that is desirable in your discipline, of course!) Master's students are experts, or at least nearly there. They need to be given their heads rather than constrained. (I am referring mainly to experienced practitioners of their discipline undertaking Master's study part-time, here; I am aware that full-time “second cycle” students who were undergraduates last year may not fit this picture.)

Personally I would rather just set out the aims of the module just so the students know what they are letting themselves in for, and recognise that the outcomes will be different every time it runs, and different for every participant. But that won't wash in the compliance climate where standardisation is all. So what can we get away with?
(Specify the level and assessment criteria at a scheme/programme level so you don't have to do it at a module level)
"On completion of this module, participants will (I prefer “participant” to “student” at this level);
  • Come to their own informed conclusions about the significance of...
  • Explore ... in the context of ...
  • Use ... as the basis of original work on ...
Or have I got it wrong?

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