Teaching

Articulating Learning Outcomes in History: Lessons Learned in Indiana

Marianne S. Wokeck, October 2010

Indiana is the state where the Lumina Foundation for Education is based, a circumstance that may well have been one of the reasons for including Indiana as one of the pilot states in the Tuning USA project (for details, see the article by Daniel McInerney, and endnote 2 of that article). As it happened, a group of interested professors of history in Indiana attended the initial meeting in Chicago; and as it turned out history was the only discipline to pilot the Tuning project in two states (Utah and Indiana). Utah and Indiana are different in the ways higher education is structured and supported by the respective state governments and they undertook the project from different starting points. However, the groups from the two states shared a strong desire for meaningful improvement of postsecondary history education. Learning from the experiences of each other and active collaboration have since been a positive hallmark and an unanticipated but most welcome outcome of the Tuning pilot projects in the two states.

Like its counterpart in Utah, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (CHE), which has a keen interest in furthering higher education reform, has supported the Tuning project. Unlike in Utah, however, the number of history-degree-granting institutions in Indiana is large and varied—over 30 public and private (independent) colleges and universities, ranging from a recently established two-year community college system to several research universities, most of which are isolated, silo-like, rather than linked (for an online map of those institutions, see www.learnmoreindiana.org/college/choosing/Pages/CollegeMap.aspx).

Any discussion among historians about what is important for graduates in history to be able to know and do is largely institution-specific. Like our colleagues in Utah, we too have depended on the kindness of academic strangers, drawing on European examples of thinking about and experiences with articulating and assessing measures of discipline and level-specific competencies. Since the Indiana group included European historians as well as historians from Europe we were particularly attuned to nuanced differences among the higher education systems on the opposite sides of the Atlantic, embracing the faculty centered and driven focus on learning outcomes and being mindful of creating a framework that would invite more and broader state-wide discussion and allow for variations in emphasis and selection by individuals and institutions interested in course and curriculum improvement.

Not surprisingly, given the parameters set for the Tuning USA project, the competencies the Indiana historians identified and grouped as learning outcomes for history majors, master’s students and doctoral degree candidates can be easily aligned with the “Dublin Descriptors” that have guided tuning efforts in Europe.1 More surprising has been the close alignment of the groupings of the competencies with the learning outcomes in regard to historical knowledge, thinking, and skills that, based on AHA recommendations, guided our Utah colleagues. Unintended but very gratifying has been the experience of fundamental agreement, accompanied by mutual respect among teachers of history at different levels and different institutions, about the importance of finding ways to teach historical knowledge, thinking, and skills that students and their parents as well as potential employers and the community at large recognize as valuable, foundational, and transferable.

The historians’ contribution to the report about the Tuning project in Indiana represents also, and maybe most crucially, a basis for further thought, discussion, and actions. An initial presentation about the project at the annual meeting of the Indiana Association of Historians not only stimulated lively discussion but also forged connections among colleagues whose institutions are requiring that their respective faculties identify discipline- and level-specific student learning outcomes. Two local examples of such institutions are Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI), which has opted for principles of undergraduate learning that determine the undergraduate experience in the core curriculum as well as the disciplinary and professional majors, and the University of Indianapolis with a more traditional, distributed general education curriculum. Equally promising is the recognition—derived from round table discussions with high school teachers—that the student learning outcomes required in secondary education can be made to resonate with history competencies at the college level.

Partly toward that end, some members of the Tuning project group collaborated with the goal of developing rubrics of student learning outcomes, including their assessment, for three levels of American history courses (introductory, upper-level, and capstone). Amanda Koch, the only graduate student participating in the Tuning project, built the sample rubrics that are designed to become the bases of discussion among historians in Indiana. The first step in making the rubrics public is their posting on the IAH and CHE websites (this is underway but not yet completed). In constructing the rubrics Koch made use of the general literature on rubrics and relied on Utah’s examples and others drafted to show that the “tuned” sets of history competencies are good fits with IUPUI’s principles of undergraduate learning. The posted sample rubrics also provide a critical program anchor for the state-wide conference that is planned for fall 2010. The Commission for Higher Education invited representatives from all Indiana colleges and universities to attend with the goal of reporting about the Tuning pilot project and of discussing and planning the next phase. Likely outcomes of the conference will be a call for a broader and more representative initiative to engage faculty in articulating and assessing learning outcomes in the disciplines that have been part of the piloting project (history and, to a lesser degree, chemistry and elementary education) and plans for expanding tuning to other disciplines or fields of expertise such as business and communication.

For the historians the annual conference of the IAH in spring 2011 will provide a more focused opportunity to examine and debate the goal that the pilot group has found worthwhile to pursue, namely to articulate clearly what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the discipline of history (see the description of Utah’s second lesson, above). In addition, the need to understand how measuring the effectiveness of reaching that goal is related to the improvement of particular courses and the history curriculum as a whole will help in devising plans and action steps that enable faculty to affect positive change for student success at their respective institutions and in the state. Colleagues at Utah State University are farther along in making formative use of learning outcome and grading rubrics, a most useful example from which history faculty in Indiana can learn as they prepare to extend the conversation about higher education reform state-wide.

Marianne S. Wokeck is the Chancellor’s Professor of History and associate dean of academic affairs in the School of Liberal Arts of Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.

Note

1.The general competencies for associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees as articulated in the Bologna Process have become known as Dublin Descriptors after the meeting in which they were named. See C. Adelman, The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence (Washington, DC: Institute for Higher
Education Policy, 2009). Online at www.ihep.org/assets/files/EYESFINAL.pdf (esp. p. 71). The tuning process in European and other countries has used the image of the tuning fork but in Indiana, home of the Indianapolis 500, where tuning can also be understood from an automotive perspective, our group has discussed the use of other, American images. One example was to use “Cambridge Measures” somewhat parallel to the Dublin Descriptors of the European Bologna process.