Grad school tests out new goals

Officials are developing new learning outcomes for each graduate-level program.
February 20, 2014

The University of Minnesota Graduate School will establish learning outcomes for each of its more than 200 graduate programs, laying out for the first time what students are expected to learn in each program.

Officials and students are now working to see how to best develop the outcomes for each program. Leaders hope to implement the learning outcomes in every graduate program by fall, but some students are at odds with this plan, saying the outcomes may not be helpful.

Council of Graduate Students executive board member Keaton Miller said
learning outcomes are difficult to define for individual programs. This is a key concern among graduate students, he said, because many research fields change quickly.

“It’s very challenging to write learning outcomes that are relevant to the work that graduate students are doing over time,” Miller said.

The Graduate School has worked on the learning outcomes for more than a year.

The University’s undergraduate program has a blanket set of learning outcomes for all major programs. But because all programs in the University’s 16 graduate colleges are so diverse, the graduate-level outcomes will be tailored to suit individual programs, Acting Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education Sally Kohlstedt said.

Informatics Institute director Claudia Neuhauser said Graduate School officials aimed to get a holistic sense of graduate education by including students and faculty while developing the learning outcomes.

To develop and test learning outcomes, the Graduate School formed a committee that established 10 sets of pilot learning outcomes for various graduate programs.

Half of the pilot programs were given a guide; the others developed their outcomes from scratch. Kohlstedt said the graduate school gave few guidelines as her committee developed its outcomes.

“There was no mandate on how it had to be done,” she said, “just as long as they were consultative and included students.”

Still, COGS president and American studies doctoral candidate Andrew McNally said the council has received push-back from some members regarding the learning outcomes.

“In [COGS] meetings there have been vigorous discussions of how the learning outcomes will be implemented, how it might change graduate education and what kind of impact it will have on grad students,” he said, adding that some also questioned how the learning outcomes would affect the student-adviser relationship.

Associate Dean of Graduate Education Melissa Anderson said the learning outcomes could improve student and adviser relations.

“Once graduate programs decide what those [learning] goals are, those goals may very well involve good, working relationships between students and advisers,” she said.

Neuhauser said graduate students often work with their adviser to set specific program plans.

“In graduate education, there’s no one-size-fits-all,” she said.

Universities like Yale, Purdue, Stanford and Rutgers already have graduate student learning outcomes.

As the University develops its learning outcomes, Neuhauser said a close collaboration between students and faculty is required.

“We would lose out tremendously if we didn’t rely on their expertise and expectations,” she said. “This should be a really open process.”

Aaron Beek, a doctoral candidate studying classical and near Eastern studies, said he doesn’t think the outcomes will be useful for graduate programs.

Most graduate students have goals for their studies before beginning a program, he said.

“I think the graduate students don’t want to have something imposed on them mid-journey,” he said.

Neuhauser teaches in the biomedical informatics and computational biology program and led the development of its pilot learning outcomes. About half the students in her program work full time in the industry, she said, so they already have specific goals for what they want to
study.

Beek, who is also the former president of COGS, said he reviewed drafts of the learning outcomes last year. He said they likely won’t have a “noticeable effect” on teaching or learning once they’re implemented.

Elizabeth Davis, an applied economics professor and program director, said she has heard positive feedback on the program’s pilot learning goals because they focus on more than just academics.

The applied economics learning outcomes also focus on developing professional skills, which received praise from both students and faculty, she said.

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