Story Magazine - Spring/Summer, 2014

Standard Outcomes, Personalized Paths

by Lisa Janke

Higher education has long operated under the assumption that competency in any field is demonstrated by the successful completion of a pre-determined set of courses. In what has been called a "just in case" learning model, curricula have been designed to expose students to everything they might need to know in their future careers—just in case. People have begun asking whether this method really prepares students for what they will face in the workplace. Increasingly, they're finding that the answer is often: not as well as it could, or not well at all.

Luther Seminary is asking, how we might best help students prepare for their future careers, recognizing that they bring diverse experiences and are going in different directions post-seminary? This is the question that the new curriculum sets out to answer. Luther Seminary's new curriculum for all degrees is focused on outcomes-based learning. "Our curriculum was one-size-fits all, and we've realized it can't stay that way," Mary Hess, associate professor of educational leadership, said. Our curriculum is our promise—to students and to the wider church—that states how we will help equip leaders for ministry. So our promise is a set of outcomes that we believe our degree programs embody, but the path to meeting those outcomes is going to look different from student to student and context to context. The path is different because where each person starts is different." This is outcomes-based learning.

The shift is that instead of being course-driven, the curriculum in now outcomes-driven. The outcomes reflect what the faculty desires to see in both graduates and in the communities they serve. They consist of skills that students need to possess, ideas they must grapple with and attitudinal traits they must inhabit.

All of the outcomes have a subset of specific, measurable competencies that the degree programs are designed to address. For example, a competency that reflects an outcome about engagement with Scripture might be: "You will invite people to approach the Scriptures with their own hard questions about God, life, death, meaning, ambiguity, identity, community and the Bible itself." Students will then be asked to self-rate themselves on a scale of "unfamiliar, growing edge, relatively strong or competent." They will then go on to offer evidence of their competency and/or their plan for continued learning at the seminary and beyond.

After students self-rate themselves in the portfolio process, they will reflect on their portfolio with their cohort group and faculty mentor. This process will allow for greater input and awareness regarding learning goals, and will support students to integrate what they are learning across all their courses—something students have often been required to do on their own. At specific points throughout the degree process, a review team will look at students' portfolios and provide feedback and direction.

A benefit of outcomes-based learning is that students can use the outcomes to plan their own vocational formation and share accountability for it. The new curriculum model allows students to take active ownership of their learning, while at the same time holding Luther Seminary accountable to promises made. Our hope is to replace the "just in case" model with a "just in time" model—where learning happens at the very time the student is ready to ask the question, Hess said.