Honing your learning objectives, part 2

In Part 2 of our blog series on learning objectives, we embrace the hard truths we learned during our previous efforts and discover how drastically a change to learning objectives can ripple through the rest of a course, requiring us to change more than just the objectives. The upside is students receive a truly challenging and engaging learning experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
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For Part 1 of this series, we took a nice, prefabricated stroll through the process of rehabilitating some unrefined learning objectives. While we were successful in meeting that goal, we inadvertently pulled a thread which unraveled a horrible truth: Our cake course doesn’t actually teach students how to make a cake. It’s a mere exercise in memorizing the details one should know in order to make a cake.
Image of a chocolate layer cake
Gwendolyn Richards, Two Layers, 2010 (Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you applied the same process to your course learning objectives and discovered the same thing, don’t panic! In fact, this illustrates why learning objectives are so powerful: Writing them properly for existing courses is a diagnostic that will help you identify where the weak points in your courses are and give you a sense of how to fix them. Before we get to it, though, let’s do a quick refresher on learning objectives from Part One:

Learning objectives are the foundation of a course. They describe the things your students will be able to do once they complete your course. They also 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 as a result. It can also be daunting to create or rewrite them for a course which you already teach because, if done properly, they will reveal uncomfortable truths about your course.

Now, take a deep, cleansing breath. Seeing our mistakes is a good thing. How can we expect to be effective educators if we ourselves are not willing to learn? Let’s roll our sleeves up and see what we can do to fix our hypothetical cake course.

Let’s establish some clarifying details about our example scenario:

  • The finished objectives from Part One do indeed represent a course focused entirely on the facts around baking a cake.
  • For the sake of the scenario, let’s just say the original vision of the course’s instructor was to give students the ability to produce a cake from a standard recipe and assess their mastery.

Now, let’s review the set of learning objectives we ended up with in Part One:

  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.

These are perfectly valid learning objectives, but they do not match the original vision of the course. This is because they only describe part of what’s needed to reach the original vision. They are a large fragment, albeit an important one, of what should be a larger course.

Remember in Part One I touched on the idea of “scope” for learning objectives? The original set from the beginning of Part One  was very specific. Too specific to be course-level objectives, but great lesson-level objectives. We merged several similar objectives that were doing the same things, just with different types of information. Our current four course-level objectives are still pretty specific and could still be used as lesson-level objectives. So what we are going to do is roll them up as “child” lesson-level objectives of a “parent” course-level learning outcome:

  1. Recall all the recipe ingredients and procedural information required to bake a standard cake.
    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.

That caps things off nicely. See how the course-level outcome logically encapsulates it’s associated lesson-level objectives? We’re telling students that they are going to need to know that recipe by heart. The course-level outcome says it all as is, but readers can get elaboration by looking at the lesson-level objectives.

We can now develop some brand new course-level objectives that will help meet the instructor’s initial vision. Currently we are just describing raw knowledge acquisition. While this is a crucial component, what about the practices and kinesthetic skills required to make a cake? We need some objectives that describes the student’s mastery of the baking process, along with some associated lesson-level objectives:

  1. Recall all the recipe ingredients and procedural information required to bake a standard cake.
    1. 1a through 1d as shown above…
  2. Refine fine-motor control over baking utensils.
    1. Observe experts’ manipulation of utensils and ingredients.
    2. Replicate expert techniques.
  3. Demonstrate the ability to produce a finished, professional-cake from a recipe using standard techniques and ingredients.
    1. Narrate the baking process as it is being performed with clarity and factuality.
    2. Present a visually pleasing finished product.

We now have Outcome 1 addressing most of the cognitive knowledge, Outcome 2 addressing the requisite motor skills, and finally, Outcome 3 which specifically challenges students to be experts. They are held to a level of mastery which requires them to not just demonstrate their ability, but demonstrate in a way that is instructive to others and results in a product that doesn’t just taste good, but looks good on the plate, too.

There is one element missing from this course that would truly set it apart: creativity. Creativity can be an extremely powerful tool in the hands of the right instructor. Pedagogically speaking, creativity is the process where learners take what they already know and use it to generate something new. I could go on at length about the nuances of this definition and the implications of how we define “new,” but I’ll save it for some future blog post. Suffice to say, that leveraging creativity in your teaching is an effective way to keep your learners engaged, and be able to tell with a high degree of certainty that learning has occurred within their brains. With the definition above in mind, let’s revise our objectives one more time:

  1. Recall all the recipe ingredients and procedural information required to bake a standard cake.
    1. . . .  
  2. Refine fine-motor control over baking utensils.
    1. . . .
  3. Demonstrate the ability to produce a finished, professional-cake from a recipe using standard techniques and ingredients.
    1. . . .
  4. Manipulate amounts, techniques, ingredients and other recipe variables to change the flavor and texture of a cake recipe.
    1. Understand the characteristics by which cakes are judged.
    2. Understand how cake characteristics are affected by each ingredient, their amounts, mixing technique, oven temperature and bake duration.
    3. Predict the result of a change in the amount of various ingredients in a cake.
    4. Adapt a standard recipe to various adverse conditions, such as missing ingredients, and atypical environmental conditions (e.g. altitude).

(See the end of the post for the complete, final set of learning objectives.)

In this new outcome, we are asking students to do something they have not previously had to do. There’s a bit more raw absorption of information, but we are also asking them to prognosticate the result of changes to the recipe. Furthermore, we are also charging them to use their knowledge to create their own deviations of a standard cake recipe that achieve specific results. This opens up a whole world of new possibilities for the instructor in terms of assessment and collaboration or integration with other disciplines. Students could be challenged to modify a recipe to, for example, work at high altitudes, or even in space!

When we started this exercise, we had a set of vague pseudo-objectives. The process of rehabilitating these objectives revealed a course that did not do much more than transmit raw content knowledge to students. We then faced this harsh reality with a constructive attitude, and built additional objectives that ask students to apply their knowledge and prove their mastery of the course content through creation.

Hopefully by looking at these objectives it is apparent how they truly form a “skeleton” for the rest of the course’s design. In fact, you could likely make the sequence of the course content follow the objectives as-is. I intend on continuing to build out this example, but in case I don’t, allow me to summarize what would happen next in a very oversimplified nutshell:

With a set of solid learning objectives, you then look at each one and ask yourself “How am I going to determine the degree to which students met this outcome?” In other words, we’re talking about assessments  such as projects and exams. Then we would ask “How am I going to provide my students with opportunities to prepare and practice for these assessments?” And finally, you would sequence and prepare the actual course content based on what they needed to know in order to prepare and practice. Again, this this is very oversimplified.

It can be scary to look critically at our courses and really analyze our learning objectives. It can lead to some hard truths. But once we embrace them, we have an opportunity to transform our courses into experiences our students will be proud to have taken part in. We can be secure and gratified in our knowledge that we designed, taught, and assessed our students rigorously. And most importantly, we will know that they possess skills and insight that will stay with them throughout their careers and lives.

Original Learning Objectives from Part One (Before)

  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.

Final Learning Objectives for the Cake Course (After)

  1. Recall all the recipe ingredients and procedural information required to bake a standard cake.
    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.
  2. Refine fine-motor control over baking utensils.
    1. Observe experts’ manipulation of utensils and ingredients.
    2. Replicate expert techniques.
  3. Demonstrate the ability to produce a finished, professional-cake from a recipe using standard techniques and ingredients.
    1. Narrate the baking process as it is being performed with clarity and factuality.
    2. Present a visually pleasing finished product.
  4. Manipulate amounts, techniques, ingredients and other recipe variables to change the flavor and texture of a cake recipe.
    1. Understand the characteristics by which cakes are judged.
    2. Understand how cake characteristics are affected by each ingredient, their amounts, mixing technique, oven temperature and bake duration.
    3. Predict the result of a change in the amount of various ingredients in a cake.
    4. Adapt a standard recipe to various adverse conditions, such as missing ingredients, and atypical environmental conditions (e.g. altitude)
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