Honing your learning objectives, part 1

Learning objectives are the foundation of a course. They describe things your students will be able to do once they complete your course, and they act as a design tool in the process of developing a course to keep you focused on important content. Flaws in them will be felt by you and your students throughout your course. It can also be daunting to create or rewrite them for a course that you already teach because, if done properly, they will reveal uncomfortable truths about it.
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Learning objectives are the core of any course. They describe specifically what a student should be able to “do” as a result of completing a learning experience. While this is the essence of what a learning outcome is, it doesn’t tell you how to leverage objectives as tools to guide the design of your course or how to “scope” them properly. Before we get into that, let’s start by listing out what a well-crafted set of learning objectives can do for your course.

Learning objectives…

  • Communicate your expectations of their ability once they complete the course.
  • Communicate the essence of your course to your colleagues.
  • Provide you with a foundation to build your course on.
  • Provide you with a touchstone to come back to when you feel like you are in the weeds while building or teaching the course.

Mistakes made when you create the learning objectives for a course will affect you when you are first building the course, and during the semester when you are teaching. If you are trying to build a course and something just doesn’t seem quite right, it’s probably your learning objectives. There are some common misunderstandings and nuances involved in crafting good learning objectives that we will explore.

To aid us on this journey of pedagogical discovery, we will use a hypothetical mini-course called “YUM 101 – Baking a Cake”. In YUM 101, students learn everything involved in baking a cake, including the role of the ingredients, the mixing procedure, baking, frosting, etc. I use this metaphor a lot because it’s a topic that is small enough to be manageable, but complex enough to be scaffolded in the context of a course.

Image of baking ingredients
Marco Verch, Top View of Baking Background, 2017 (Source: Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Looking at the imaginary syllabus of YUM 101, we see the following learning objectives:

  1. Understand what role flour plays in the baking process.
  2. Understand what role eggs have in the baking process.
  3. Understand what role milk has in the baking process.
  4. Understand the different amounts of ingredients to use
  5. Understand the ingredients and process for making frosting.
  6. At what temperature should the batter be cooked?
  7. Know the steps required to bake a cake
  8. Understand the importance of various mixing techniques
  9. Become familiar with various kitchen utensils.

Just by looking at this list as a whole, we can see that there are too many learning objectives. I’ve seen many suggestions about what the “right” number of objectives is. In my opinion, 3-5 is a good amount. Course earning objectives are in part a communication tool to others who are not you or your department. With that in mind, I suppose the correct number would be: Enough to concisely convey the essence of your course, but not so many that no one reads them.

Now let’s delve into specific issues with this list. A large number of objectives indicates that the person who wrote them may be familiar with the essence of what a learning outcome is, but not conscious of the “scope” their objectives have. You can write learning objectives for an activity, lesson, unit, course, or entire program. To put it another way, you have to be aware of how much instruction the objectives you write are describing. If we ask ourselves the question, “What scope of instruction is this outcome describing?” for each of the objectives above, we realize that we actually have a mixture of lesson-level objectives with a couple course-level ones mixed in. The specific scope of an outcome is open to interpretation, but generally, if the outcome describes a very specific task that is low in cognitive demand (such as simply memorizing something), it’s not a course-level objective, and/or it should be combined with others similar to it.

For example, look at the first three objectives in the list. We are requiring students to do very similar things with different, but related objects. “Eggs”, “Milk” and “Flour” are all ingredients and we are asking student to “Understand” what these objects “do.” So let’s merge these into a single, course-level outcome:

  1. Understand the roles different ingredients play in the baking process.
  2. Understand the different amounts of ingredients to use.
  3. Understand the ingredients and process for making frosting.
  4. At what temperature should the batter be cooked?
  5. Know the steps required to perform to bake a cake
  6. Understand the importance of various mixing techniques
  7. Become familiar with various kitchen utensils.

Better, but we aren’t done yet. Look at the fourth outcome. Learning objectives are not questions– which is moot anyway, because if you look at the fifth outcome, you’ll see that the cooking temperature is a piece of knowledge that would be covered under the steps (process) for baking a cake. So number four is entirely redundant and we can delete it. The same could be said for number two. This gives us:

  1. Understand the roles different ingredients play in the baking process.
  2. Understand the ingredients and process for making frosting.
  3. Know the steps required to bake a cake
  4. Understand the importance of various mixing techniques
  5. Become familiar with various kitchen utensils.

We’re down to five objectives, but something still doesn’t feel right. Our objectives mention two main topics: cake and frosting. These two topics have some shared attributes: ingredients, and step/process. There are also two other nouns not specifically tied to anything else: mixing techniques and utensils. Let’s leave those last two alone for now and focused on the first three. Since both “cake” and “frosting” have “ingredients” and “steps”, they can be combined. Furthermore, you could argue the “frosting” is just another ingredient of the whole cake, and thus does not need to be included in the objectives.

  1. Understand the roles different ingredients play in recipes for a cake with frosting.
  2. Understand the steps that must be performed to bake a cake with frosting
  3. Understand the importance of various mixing techniques
  4. Become familiar with various kitchen utensils.

There! Four is a nice number… Unfortunately, there’s still one major problem. Up until this point, we’ve been looking at the nouns in our objectives and categorically arranging them to find ways of reducing our list. That exercise was logical “clean up” to make this next part easier. Verbs are where the heart of your learning objectives are. To test your objectives, prefix them with, “How do I know they”, and turn them into questions:

  1. How do I know they understand the roles different ingredients play in recipes for cake with frosting.
  2. How do I know they understand the steps that must be performed to bake a cake with frosting
  3. How do I know they understand the importance of various mixing techniques
  4. How do I know they have become familiar with various kitchen utensils.

This is where things get uncomfortable. Your gut may answer each of these questions with “Exams and Quizzes!”. If that’s the case, you may also be hit by a startling realization: This course, by it’s own definition, is ONLY about knowing the facts that pertain to the baking of cakes. Verbs like “Understanding”, “Knowing”, and “Become familiar” are abstracts. Their existence can only be inferred through testing, and have no physical product to measure. This is fine if your course is entirely conceptual, but can you really say that a student who has aced an exam on the baking of cakes is actually capable of producing one?

By reducing and refining our list of objectives, we inadvertently reveal that our cake course doesn’t actually verify that students can make a cake. It only ensures that they’ve memorized the facts about making cakes. In Part 2 of this series, I discuss approaches we can take to rectify this situation.

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