About a decade ago, the Ontario Universities Council on Quality Assurance tasked my colleagues and me to write “Program Learning Outcomes” (PLOs) for our undergraduate modules in Anthropology. These were meant to be statements that would communicate “what successful students will have achieved as well as knowledge, skills, and abilities they should have acquired by the end of [our programs]”.

Mandated by a government program that was intended to offer some guarantee of a return on public investment in higher education, the exercise of producing PLOs felt at first like just another hoop to jump through. Still, we agreed that one too-rarely asked question was valid and important: What are our students are getting from their time with us?

Eventually, we created PLOs that made sense to us – statements that captured a collective sense of what we intend students to get out of studying with us. Highlights included our expectations that students

  • “recognize, understand and respect cultural, linguistic and biological diversity in the past and the present, locally and globally,”
  • “engage effectively in autonomous and collaborative work with fellow students and/or community partners”,
  • and “reflect critically upon the personal and disciplinary limits of knowledge and develop an appreciation for uncertainty and ambiguity within interpretation and analysis.”

Exercise complete, we sent our PLOs off and appended them to the self-assessment of our undergraduate program. It was hard to know whether we had achieved anything else in completing this exercise. And so, we promptly forgot about it.

Some might imagine that the exercise of writing PLOs was a waste of time or, to borrow from the anthropologist David Graeber, a sign of the “increasing bullshitization of academic life”. The reflections and discussions inspired by this exercise, however, were engaging and productive. Moreover, the list of PLOs we arrived at reflected our own, and not someone else’s, sense of the value of what we teach. Mightn’t something more come from a process like this?

Strangely, the PLO writing exercise ended with no expectation that we share the results of our reflections and discussions with the people most implicated in them: our students. This significant oversight occurred to me several years later when, in response to off-hand comments from students about the real-world relevance of what they were learning with us, it occurred to me that they had no sense of what we, their teachers, thought that they were getting from our program. They were familiar with the “learning outcomes” sections of syllabi, outlining what students are meant to get out of particular courses, but they had no idea that something similar existed for the larger programs into which these courses fit.

I doubted that simply posting our PLOs online (as we have since done) would have much of an impact, so, in 2017, I organized a workshop presenting students with the PLOs we had come up with, explaining why and how they came to be, and challenging them to put our claims to the test. Did our students agree with what their teachers thought they were getting out of their time with us? Thankfully, they mostly did. They certainly had no trouble writing short, clear statements that communicated how specific experiences in particular courses demonstrated what they’d learned—they clearly understood the value of cultural diversity, could engage in complex collaborations, and appreciated the inevitable ambiguities of interpretation and analysis. Their responses came as more than a relief. They were encouraging. However forgettable the exercise of producing PLOs had been for us, at least we’d gotten something right in the process.

I have since built this exercise into a capstone course, requiring senior undergraduate students to step back and reflect on what they’ve learned during their time with us, and, just as importantly, to practice communicating the value of their anthropological training in ways that others (who may know nothing about anthropology) might understand and appreciate. Results continue to be encouraging. Students are consistently happy for the chance to reflect on and discuss the value of what they’ve been learning. If, in the process, they claim some part of our list of carefully worded PLOs as their own, then all the better. Who worthier to spread the word about the value of anthropology than our students? And how better to do so than through language that manages to express assessments of the discipline that our students and their teachers agree on and can back up?