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Aurora Institute

I’m Sorry I Failed You: Taking an Outcome-Based Approach to Student Learning in a Traditional Classroom

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Mary Tkatchov

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

“Do no harm,” was my grad school professor’s advice about being an educator. When I reflect on some of the decisions I have made as a teacher since then, I know that although my intentions were good, I actually did some harm. I had to make daily judgments that could affect a student’s future, and since I am human and make mistakes just as my students do, I have often asked myself, “Did I do the right thing?”

One English 101 student, “Jake,” still haunts my memories. Jake was pleasant and invested in his learning; he was a skilled writer and his engagement in class discussions helped to keep the climate interesting. On the last day of class, Jake approached me to thank me for a great class and then said that he did not have his final paper. He did not say why, and I did not ask. I can only assume he was respecting my “no late work” policy, which was especially thoughtful since he could not pass the class without turning in the final paper. I considered giving him more time, but since he did not ask for an extension, as many students would, I did not offer one. A few days later as I was submitting final grades, I felt compelled to fail him.

I experienced feelings of guilt and regret after posting grades for this class, even though I could justify my decision. After all, the other students might have stayed up all night or given up important events to finish their papers. It was only fair to them that I enforce my deadlines, which were disclosed at the beginning of the semester, as was the no-late-work policy. And, why should I have to chase him down to give him extra time for reduced credit? Yet, I worried I had violated the “do no harm” admonishment.

Sometime during my own education I had internalized the belief that the primary job of a teacher was to prepare students for the real world—that since they would have to meet deadlines without excuses in life, they should have to do the same in the classroom. Now that I have worked in the real world and I have had to push back deadlines on occasion without, to my relief, the cataclysmic consequences I might have expected, I am questioning how real-world is it to be so inflexible with human beings, especially when the goal is not the creation of a product, but something so impossible to standardize—an individual’s learning.

Working in curriculum development over the last few years has provided me with the opportunity to investigate learning theories and models, particularly outcome-based education (OBE). The works of Spady and Wiggins & McTighe gave me so much to think about, and flashbacks to “the Jake incident” were definitely looming over me. The basic premise of OBE is that all learning and assessment should be driven by clearly defined and significant outcomes, or the skills and knowledge students are expected to have when they complete the course or program.

A major component of OBE is flexibility and support for students in meeting high expectations; in an OBE system, students have multiple attempts to achieve outcomes if they fall short on the first attempt, and teachers support individual needs and differences, including the pace at which students learn and complete assessments. William Spady calls this the principle of Expanded Opportunity and Support for Learning Success. According to Spady, “WHAT and WHETHER students learn successfully [are] more important than WHEN and HOW they learn it” (Spady, 1994, p. 25). Although teachers and learners work within a structured, time-based system, Spady recommends “treating the clock, schedule, and calendar as ways to organize and coordinate teaching and learning opportunities, rather than as rigid definers of those experiences” (Spady, 1994, p.14). We certainly do not have unlimited time with our students, but we do have room for flexibility.

I know that educators in a time-based education system need to be realistic about the inconvenience of accepting late assignments or burnout from the grading overload that results when we allow multiple submissions of papers and projects from all of the students who are learning from their mistakes. But maybe being flexible with our students is more “real-world” than we’ve acknowledged. In fact, the OBE model places “heavy emphasis on the use of authentic life contexts, settings, and experiences…as both necessary places where learning should occur and realistic settings in which performances should be carried out” (Spady, 1994, p. 94 ). It would be highly inconsistent for a system of authentic learning and assessment to allow for “expanded opportunity” and flexibility if they were not, themselves, reflective of “real life.”

I realize, now, that my job as a teacher was not to hold students to hard deadlines, but to provide support and flexibility for students to achieve the desired outcomes when they are ready and able. My job was also to teach students like Jake to advocate for themselves and communicate their needs to the teachers who are there to help them. If I could go back and teach Jake’s class all over again, I would change my late-work and resubmission policies to “What do you need? Just talk to me. Let’s work something out.”


Glatthorn, A. (1993). Outcomes-based education: Reform and the curriculum process. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 8(4), 354-363.

Killen, R. (2000). Outcomes-based education: Principles and possibilities. Unpublished manuscript, University of Newcastle, Faculty of Education.

Spady, W. (1994). Outcome-based education: Critical issues and answers. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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Mary Tkatchov is an assessment developer at Western Governors University. She has over 15 years of experience in secondary and post-secondary education. She is co-author of the book Proactive Professional Learning: Creating Conditions for Individual and Organizational Improvement.