Rules-based vs. Principles-based: an idea from the 2011 TLT Symposium

Clay Shirkey, the keynote speaker at the TLT Symposium, used an accounting example in one of his answers to a question from the audience.  He noted that in rules-based accounting it is easy to get around some rules without technically breaking them, but it is more difficult to get away with something in principles-based accounting.  I may not be paraphrasing this well, but his example got me thinking about rules vs. principles relative to instructional development practices and student learning outcomes.

Instructional consultants and faculty developers are sometimes asked to provide what amounts to ‘rules’ that faculty might follow to become better instructors or improve students’ learning.  Instead, we fall back on principles of good practice that can be adapted and flexed for different faculty, courses, disciplines, and contexts.

The rules vs. principles issue also rang true for student learning outcomes assessment.  All too often we hear about outcomes assessment processes that are highly formulaic or that seem to expect all faculty to use a single model.  I see student learning outcomes more as principles than rules.  There are some good frameworks that can be adapted to a variety of curricula and disciplines, but it is not really reasonable to expect all academic programs to approach learning outcomes assessment in the same way. 

This even works at the scale of the syllabus.  If a course has explicit learning outcomes it is a more flexible document than a syllabus focused primarily on the content of a course.  Courses with explicit learning outcomes can increase clarity for students, but maintain faculty autonomy and foster creativity.  If students manage to achieve the learning objectives, it becomes less important that every instructor and every student move in lock-step along a predetermined course pathway.

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