SLOs…Who are They For?

Earlier this week, David Buck asked an important question about SLOs on Twitter:

I retweeted this question and responded with some thoughts of my own (see below). Here, I want to use my initial response as a jumping off point for more thoughts on SLOs.

As I said in my initial thread, thinking about SLOs as progressive and not concrete achievements is a major concern in the FYE proposal committee I’m chairing. That committee is charged with developing a true FYE experience on my campus as part of a learning arc. Before developing the components of the FYE, we’ve been focused on the programmatic SLOs. As I also note in the thread, that conversation, and Buck’s tweet, has me thinking about my own class SLOs. The trick, I think, is to balance knowing concrete information (e.g., definitional differences between probation and parole) and the more challenging–and, potentially, more critical–goals of skill development. For instance, one of my goals in my Community Corrections class in a non-pandemic era is to help students develop their writing and argumentation skills. But I’m not sure how clear I make this goal in my SLOs or how clear it is the goal is one of development rather than “you will do X.” If writing my own pieces have taught me anything, it’s that you never stop developing writing and argumentation skills.

This actually reminds me of a conversation I have in classes all the time. Students will submit a written assignment and see my mark-ups all over. Without fail, students are frustrated at the feedback and I will often hear something along the lines of “But I’m a good writer” or “I’ve never gotten this kind of criticism on other writings.” Though I contend it’s constructive criticism, students don’t often see it that way. And I think that has a lot to do with how we talk about skills, especially in our SLOs. Students leave writing classes thinking that learning a particular style of writing means they’ve learned them all. Or that having developed a good ability at one type of writing means they will automatically be good at all types of writing. (But, as any of us who have written for different audiences know, the skill of writing an academic paper rarely translates smoothly into the skill of writing for the general public.) Or that learning how to write means you can’t get better at writing or that it’s not a skill you have to keep practicing to a) stay good at, b) be able to be good at different types of writing, and c) be able to transition between writing styles as needed.

This is where a change in how we think about SLOs can be helpful. If, instead of an SLO that says “Students will be able to write a research paper,” what we said, “Students will be begin developing their writing style for research papers”? This version gets at the idea that how we can write vary from person to person, that how we write can vary based on the type of piece we’re writing, and that the specific course focuses on the specific writing of research papers. For my own class, I could have an SLO like “Students will begin to understand how to utilize academic studies to build a policy argument” and “Students will begin developing their writing style for policy position papers.” The possibilities with this type of SLO are endless and potentially opens up a more pedagogically creative approach to our courses.

This way of thinking about SLOs may also be a way to think about a question that came up in The Future of Criminal Justice Education webinar my colleagues and I hosted. In that webinar, we attempted to address the question of how to help students who want to work in the system in some capacity to deconstruct the status quo and question what they assume to be true. Many of the panelists pointed to the need to help students build empathy, contextualize and historicize the system, and recognize the role they can play towards achieving justice. Developing SLOs that are progressive and about skill development, rather than concrete outcomes, may open the doors for the types of conversations we want to hold in the classroom.

Where I get stuck, however, is on Buck’s last point about whether students want those objectives. I know a lot of ungraders like developing course objectives with their students, but, to be honest, I can’t wrap my head around how this would go with crim/cj students. Some would say this is a sign that I don’t fully trust students, yet, and they wouldn’t be wrong. When I ask students at the beginning of the semester what they hope to learn, they often give me generic answers like “how the cj system works” or “what probation and parole is.” While those objectives can provide an avenue for more critical conversations about how the system fails, the challenges of navigating supervision, or the structural racism of the legal system, they often don’t (as evident by how many programs and classes are out there that don’t have these conversations). It is often not until a class ends that students tell me they’ve appreciated covering these topics and that they are topics they would not have thought about if I did not make it a specific focus of the course (and thus a specific SLO). So, how do we balance the objectives students want to learn versus the objectives we think they need to learn? Maybe I’m overthinking it and the goal is for students to develop the base objectives, but it seems counterproductive to say “develop objectives with students” only to turn around and interpret the objectives the way we think they should have been written in the first place. Or maybe I’m just not understanding this point at all.

Another issue Buck raised was the audience objectives are written for. As he rightly points out, our courses tend to be designed for accrediting bodies. While most of would probably argue “that’s not true!,” at the end of the day, that is who judges us, our courses, our programs, etc.

But what would happen if we designed them with the community mind? For instance, what would SLOs for a Criminology or Criminal Justice program look like if we asked community members most impacted by the system what they wanted our students to learn? How would that conversation impact the courses we require, the questions we ask our students to interrogate, or the way our courses are designed? Would we have courses on “community corrections” that focused on a portion of the system, or would we have one on “supervision” that interrogates the overarching notion of supervision and surveillance and how those ideas are incorporated in how we think about crime, criminal behavior, and our response to both?

Another question that comes up with SLOs is how to assess them. This is has been a conversation that comes up often in the FYE committee as we worked to develop SLOs. We want the SLOs to be focused on development, but that raised the challenge of making them “concrete” enough to measure. As we discussed options, however, it became clear that we all were wary of thinking of “assessment” in a way that is testable or measure in traditional (accreditation approved) ways. In the end, we settled on a combination. For instance, if a student takes a financial literacy course as part of their extra-curricular requirements, perhaps a reflection piece that asks them to consider how the course will be useful for them in the future would make sense. If we ask them to develop media literacy skills, perhaps an assignment that asks them to discuss or identify basic media literacy concepts would be appropriate. While many of us utilize creative assignments and assessments beyond multiple choice or essay exams, re-thinking how we develop SLOs and what kinds of SLOs we develop could lead to more interesting, useful, and insightful assignments. Re-thinking SLOs would also make it easier to incorporate scaffolded assignments and progress letters: assignments that focus specifically on development.

Ultimately, the question of “Who are our SLOs for?” is one we need to interrogate more. I would actually be very curious to see how programs would change if program revisions began with a conversation with the communities impacted by our fields. And I, for one, will be taking a hard look at all of my course objectives—and associated assignments—this summer to make sure they actually capture what I hope students will get out of the classes.

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