This is related to the discussion running around the blogosphere today about outcomes assessment; but distantly.
I'm applying for a workshop at a Famous Library, one focused on teaching rather than on research. I showed my writing group my letter of application, which includes information about the courses I want to enhance by taking this workshop, and what I want the students to get out of this enhancement.
All I want for the undergraduates is that they understand—because they have seen—the work that goes into making an edition of a medieval or early modern text: that someone has to read words written in old, probably crappy handwriting, perhaps in multiple versions, and somehow get from that to a single legible comprehensible printed text in the book they're using in class. I do have some assignments that involve editing a few lines, but I am not trying to turn undergrads into textual editors. "Understand" is my goal, my key word here.
And the person in the group who deals with learning objectives (etc.) suggests adding learning objectives, which have to be quantifiable, to the application.
Sure, I could add an assignment or a quiz question that makes students write out what editors do, based on what they learned from what we'll do in class, and then I would have proof that they "understood" something.
But that really isn't the point. I'm hoping to create that elusive "aha!" moment, the sense of "oh, so this is what a manuscript is," and "ugh, how do people read this?" and "wow, I can read this!" and "gosh, I never realized what went into creating our textbooks." I believe that an untested, that is, unquantified experience, without any anxiety about "what will be on the quiz?" or "what do you want in the paper?" will do a better job of creating the "aha!" than a serious "learning objective" ever could.
So I'm sticking to my version of my goals for the workshop and the classes. Understanding may not be quantifiable, and sometimes that's what we want.