The metaphysical teacher


Terminology matters in teaching practice. At its simplest, a catchy acronym might enhance the adoption of a learning approach, as is the case with ‘Flipped Classroom’ and ‘SCALE-UP’ (Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies), or ‘SLICCs’ (Student-Led Individually Created Courses) even if the terms themselves do not necessarily refer to a novel practice in the classroom. But the way terms are used can have a subtler yet more profound impact on teaching practice.

One example where terminology can make a difference in teaching practice is in whether the aims of a course of study is thought of as learning ‘outcomes’ or learning ‘objectives’. Whether one adopts the phrase ‘learning outcomes’ or ‘learning objectives’ might not seem worth arguing about. But the term ‘outcomes’ is more suggestive or something which can be measured, whereas the term ‘objectives’ refers to what is hoped or aimed for, without the claim that such objectives are to be adopted or achieved by the learner.

Courses commonly describe the learning outcomes or objectives using the phrase ‘upon completion of this course, students will be able to’ followed by a list of theoretical and practical abilities presumed to be gained by the student. But such use of language does not take into account that learning may not have happened at all, even if a student completes a course, and that ascertaining whether what was learnt was an outcome of the course is far from being a simple causal relationship. In other words, pedagogic terms can reflect how we view the relationship, and the balance of responsibility for learning between teacher and learner.

An objector might opine that this is no more than splitting hairs! But to make the point differently, what if the teacher considered the following phrase when describing the learning objectives: ‘upon engaging with this course, students will recognise the opportunities to gain or develop’ followed by the gains expected in terms of knowledge, skills and abilities? Such an understanding of learning aims might lead to a different approach when designing training and assignments. Would we, for example, necessarily insist on content and assignments being strictly within the discipline, or might we consider an assignment from another discipline, such as the philosophy of history, to be just as valuable in promoting critical thinking in a course offered by the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences?

Learning and the outcomes of learning are far from being measurable, but recognising the opportunities for learning is something which can enhance the learning process. The terms we use in teaching, well, matter.

Medhat Khattar

Medhat Khattar is a Teaching Fellow in clinical microbiology and infectious diseases in Biomedical Sciences. When not teaching microbiology, Medhat explores what political theory has to offer. He holds an MA in political philosophy (York), and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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