The Best Teaching Tool with the Worst Reputation
Posted July 6, 2015
By Joanne Dolan
Learning objectives have a bad reputation – they’re not fun to write, students don’t read them, they cramp our teaching style, they’re busy-work for accreditation, they’re a result of the assessment-driven, measurement-crazy education system – I’ve heard it all! And while I can’t deny that at various times I’ve believed most of these allegations, I recently made it my mission to repair learning objectives’ bad reputation. In fact, if pressed about the single thing that most faculty can do to improve their course, I now always suggest the process of developing or revising course objectives.The act of reflection and recalibration can bring new focus to a course. By revisiting objectives, you can identify materials that have become outdated or irrelevant. You can examine your assignments in the context of your new goals, i.e. are you asking students to do things that will help them achieve your objectives? Above all, the exercise can breathe new life into a course and revitalize your passion for the subject.
When convincing faculty, particularly those of a skeptical ilk, to revise learning objectives, I like to break the process into two separate exercises – identifying the ‘essence’ of the course, and then building that essence into strong action-based, measurable objectives.
Step 1: Identifying the Essence
Working on objectives is less of a task than it is a process and as such needs a little time, space and distance from the course itself. The summer is therefore the perfect time to tackle this. Over the next couple of months, before you begin actively working on your syllabus, consider your fall course. Perhaps when taking the dog for a walk, enjoying a glass of wine on the patio, or even sitting in traffic, take a moment to ask yourself some of these questions:
1. What is a big, debated question that my course/discipline is trying to answer?
2. In five years’ time, if my students remember just one thing from my course, what do I want that thing to be?
3. If my students never take another [insert your discipline here] course, what is the one unique perspective they can take away and apply to life?
4. If my students are at a bar and the conversation comes around to a controversial topic in my discipline, what do I want my students to bring to the conversation?
The answers to these questions should be idealistic and can be intangible. Don’t be bound by past semesters or what colleagues have done. Don’t focus on the material; instead focus on the concepts. The answers should be the reasons you love to teach this course and should reveal the passion you have for your discipline.
In educational or instructional design terms, the concept of identifying an ‘essence’ borrows heavily from Wiggin & McTighe’s Understanding by Design’s idea of an ‘essential question’ (a great read if you’re interested in delving more into objectives and alignment). It is also repeated/modified throughout educational literature and practice including in Exploring Signature Pedagogies by Gurung, Chick and Haynie (another must-read, particularly if you identified with question three above).
In practical terms, you should take your answers to these questions and attempt to craft a single statement that represents the course. This statement should become your driving force, the philosophy you return to on a regular basis when writing objectives, choosing materials, and designing assessments. Post it prominently in your office, state it on your syllabus, write it on your whiteboard, shout it from the rooftops and, above all, share and restate it regularly to your students so that they can share your curiosity, passion and excitement.
Step 2: Writing the Objectives
So, you have the ‘essence’ of your course. How does this translate to the course objectives? Well unfortunately, this part doesn’t happen very well while walking the dog! This is when you need to look at your wonderful, idealistic, exciting essential statement, and think more about logistics. What concrete things do your students need to accomplish over this semester to lay the foundation for these bigger ideals?
Keeping your essential statement in mind, sit down with a blank sheet of paper or a whiteboard and begin to think about what you hope your students are able to DO by the end of the semester. Focus on observable, measurable behavior. When going through the process, consider the following:
-Use measurable action verbs
- At some point you will need to assess (either for grades or your own curiosity) if your students have accomplished what you hoped they would. Using measurable verbs can help with this. There are many lists of verbs available online if you need some inspiration, including this one from the WTCS Foundation - http://www.uwgb.edu/catl/files/online/WIDS.pdf
- Some verbs that are often used in objectives are not really measurable. For example, how do you know if a student ‘understands’ something? Beyond seeing the ‘light-bulb’ moment, we usually ask them to do something to demonstrate their understanding such as discussing the topic in a group, analyzing a case-study, or designing a research study. Other problematic verbs include ‘learn’, ‘appreciate’, ‘realize’, ‘explore’, and ‘be aware of’. If you find that you have used verbs such as these, ask yourself how you will know if your students are achieving these objectives to help yourself identify a more measurable verb.
-Don’t underestimate your students
- A discussion of Bloom’s taxonomy is beyond the scope of this blog post, but many of the verb lists (including the one above) are organized into levels of understanding ranging from lower orders (remembering or knowledge) to higher orders of thinking (creating or evaluation). If you find that many of your objectives include lower-level verbs, consider revisiting your essential statement. Given that this statement has lofty ideals, your objectives should match these high expectations. Even in introductory courses it can be appropriate to ask students to aim for higher levels of understanding such as creation, analysis, debate, etc., as long as you support them and have realistic expectations.
Having offered these basic guidelines, I now urge you to not be overly-critical of your objectives at this point. Write freely and think outside the box. Try not to be constrained by traditional academic expectations. I see so much classroom innovation come from course objectives that are quirky, interesting and challenging. Closer to the start of the semester you can refine, combine and edit these statements into a manageable number of measurable objectives, but for now imagine what your students could achieve and then push things one step further.
Now that you have a list of strong, exciting, relevant objectives, use these as a road map for the rest of your course. Look critically at every aspect of the semester – readings, lectures, discussion topics, homework assignments, and final papers. Ask yourself if each of these support your objectives and move your students towards engaging with the essence of your course. If you’re interested in learning more about this “alignment” process, Wiggins and McTighe is a great starting point.
Finally, after all of this work, don’t let your objectives go stale. Like so many aspects of teaching, learning objectives should be dynamic and relevant. You should revisit, analyze and change these objectives as you see success and failure in the classroom, as you evolve as a teacher, and as your students exceed your expectations. It will keep you excited and interested in your course, and you too can then join my mission to repair objectives’ bad reputation!
Gurung, R.A.R., Chick, A.L. & Haynie, A.(2009). Exploring Signature Pedagogies. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Joanne Dolan is the Manager for Online Learning and Instructional Technology at Clark University, where she has worked for about a week. Her new role will allow her to work with faculty & designers to build innovative, new online programs. Prior to this, she has worked in a range of positions supporting faculty and students, including most recently, as an Instructional Design Coordinator for the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.