Here is a common and spectacularly ineffective technique instructors use to clarify their learning goals for their students. It’s a short response to a time-honored and universally detested (by instructors) student question:
Student: “Professor Postolotz, are we responsible for ____ on Wednesday’s test?“
Instructor: “Yes, and for everything else in the 273 pages of the text we’ve covered so far and for everything I’ve said and shown in class since Day 1.”
(Rich has been tempted to offer an equally unhelpful response, “No, it happened before you were born,” but so far he has managed to restrain himself.)
Students have a much better chance of learning in a course when they have a clear understanding of the instructor’s expectations. An proven effective way to communicate expectations to students is to write learning objectives—general statements of tasks the students should be able to complete if they have learned what their instructor is trying to teach them. That observation is reflected in
Principle 1. Learning and skill development are facilitated by writing clear and observable learning objectives and sharing them with students.
A list of learning objectives begins with a stem, such as:
- “By the end of this [chapter, month, course,…], the students should be able to…”
- “In order to do well on the next exam, [you, the students] should be able to…”
followed by a comprehensive set of tasks that might show up on assignments and tests (or if the second stem is used, on the next exam). Each task statement should begin with an action verb, such as define, explain, interpret, calculate, derive, solve, model, troubleshoot, critique, or design.
To be most useful to instructors and students, learning objectives should meet two criteria: observability and clarity. For an objective to be considered observable, the instructor should be able to either see the students carrying out the specified task or see the products of its completion. Verbs like know, learn, understand, and appreciate are not directly observable, and so should not be used in learning objectives. For an objective to be judged clear, after the relevant course material has been covered in class, the students should have a good idea of whether or not they could carry out the task if called on to do so.
Instructors frequently have only a vague idea of what they want their students to be able to do, often defining it clearly only when they make up their exams. When that happens, they often end up testing the students on material that hasn’t been adequately covered in class and on assignments. When you have written a thorough set of learning objectives for a course, you should clearly understand exactly what you’ll need to teach—namely, how to do the tasks specified in the objectives. You’ll then be in a good position to get constructive alignment in the course (Biggs, 2003), meaning that all of the lectures, in-class activities, out-of-class assignments, and exams consistently address the same knowledge and skills.
Even if students have your objectives, there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be able to complete the specified tasks: they’ll still need the necessary aptitude and have to do the necessary studying. What the objectives do is maximize the chances that students with the aptitude who put in the studying will end by meeting the objectives.
To equip your students with a clear understanding of your learning goals for them, consider posting your objectives in study guides for exams one to two weeks before the exams are given. The objectives should encompass every type of task you might include on the exam, especially tasks that require high-level thinking and problem-solving skills, and every exam should include a subset of the types of questions and problems specified on the study guide. Instructors who have never done this are often afraid they’ll have to list hundreds of objectives in dozens of pages. You won’t: every study guide we’ve ever written has fit on one double-sided sheet of paper. (Reference 2 below gives examples.)
Even if you deliberately include more high-level problems on a study guide than you normally would, you should see a significant improvement in your students’ average test performance compared to what it was without the learning objectives. A bonus is that you’ll never have to deal with that dreaded student question (“Are we responsible for ___ on the test?”) again. The students will quickly learn that the answer is “If it’s on the study guide, you’re responsible for it; if it’s not, you’re not.”
References on writing and using learning objectives
- Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university—What the student does, 2nd Edition. Buckingham: SRHE / Open University Press.
- Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, Chapter 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). “Introduction to learning objectives.” A short online tutorial that defines learning objectives, gives reasons for writing them and different ways to use them, outlines different levels of complexity of objectives using Bloom’s Taxonomy, and gives directions for writing effective objectives at different levels. The tutorial also includes an online multiple-choice quiz on the tutorial contents that provides feedback on incorrect responses
- Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2003). “Designing and Teaching Courses to Satisfy the ABET Engineering Criteria.” Journal of Engineering Education, 2(1), 7-25. A review of educational assessment terminology (educational objectives, outcomes, learning objectives, etc.), followed by suggestions for formulating course learning objectives, designing instruction, and selecting assessment methods that address Outcomes 3a-3k of the system used to accredit all American engineering programs.