Learning Goals, Learning Objectives and Backward Design, Oh My!

One of the hurdles experienced by many instructors in higher education is the practice of hiring based on a graduate degree in one’s subject matter but which isn’t necessarily accompanied by any pedagogical training. This is an offshoot of the mistaken belief that if one knows a subject well, one is automatically going to be able to teach that subject. Au contraire, mon ami! As I’m sure many of you have come to realize, teaching is its own skillset. 

Cultivating new knowledge and/or skills is the whole point of teaching and learning. A finely-crafted lecture—or in the case of asynchronous online courses, well-designed content—may be fascinating and even full of sparkling wisdom but if there’s no cognitive or behavioral change in students as a result, it’s all just entertainment (or drudgery, depending on the perspective). As one of my mentors said, “Telling ain’t teaching.”

Traditional methods of curriculum planning, where a list of content is the starting point and outcomes and assessments come last, often lead to missing content (where the content provided doesn’t match what’s being assessed) or the dreaded “bloat” (you know, when the course is full of “Oh, that would be good for them to know!” stuff but is lacking a solid progression leading to specific learning outcomes). 

Typically, the missing ingredient is strategic planning based on a set of well-defined and clearly articulated learning objectives.  

Getting Strategic About Course Design

As a first step in our strategic course design, let’s draw the distinction between learning goals and learning objectives. In the educational context, goals are the higher-level outcomes you plan to accomplish in the course. Objectives are the specific, measurable competencies students will demonstrate that lead to that goal. For example, my goal might be: “understand the concept of conditional probability” and a correlating objective might be: “calculate the conditional probability of a given event using a tree diagram.” 

Once you’ve got a solid learning objective—clear, focused and measurable—your next step is to determine how you’ll assess whether students have mastered that objective (that’s why “measurable” is so important). Then it’s an easy jump to the final step of figuring out what content and activities—lecture, reading, videos, case studies, practice examples, etc.—will support students in achieving and demonstrating their competency. 

Voilà! There’s your course design sequence: goals 🡪 objectives 🡪 assessments 🡪 content. This is often referred to as backward design and ensures that your outcomes and assessments map across to the content you’re providing students. It’s akin to taking a road trip and choosing your destination first, then planning the route and rest stops so you’re sure to arrive when and where you want. 

It all starts with the humble learning objective. 

Writing an Effective Learning Objective

How do you write a well-defined and clearly articulated objective? I’m so glad you asked!

I’ll give you the basics here but know that a Google search for “how to write learning objectives” returned 251,000,000 results so there are plenty of resources out there if you want more details. (I particularly liked this article on why objectives matter from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard.)

  1. Identify the thing you want students to learn.

Example: five steps of the scientific method

  1. Pinpoint the level of knowledge desired (using Bloom’s or another learning taxonomy). 

The level of learning directly influences the type of assessment you’ll choose. In our example of the scientific method, asking students to apply the steps would be a higher level, and a different assessment task, than asking them to name the steps.

  • Example 1: to know the five steps of the scientific method (remember)
  • Example 2: to use the five steps of the scientific method (apply)
  1. Identify a verb that describes the behavior students will demonstrate. (It’s gotta be observable/measurable. Understand or know are not observable.)
  • Example 1: recall the five steps of the scientific method 
  • Example 2: perform an experiment following the five steps of the scientific method 

If you’re getting fancy, you’ll also identify the conditions under which the skill or behavior is to be performed: 

  • The student will recite Newton’s Laws without use of a memory aid.
  • The student will use a thesaurus to identify synonyms for a given list of words
  • Using primary and secondary sources, the student will analyze causes of the American Revolution.
  • Given access to the College library, the student will identify the variety of research resources available.  

And getting extra fancy, you’ll include the criteria used to measure performance. So, putting it all together using our example, you might end up with: The student will use the scientific method to perform an experiment in their daily life with a rubric rating of 85/100. (And then you’d craft the grading rubric.)

There you have it—the why and the how of writing meaningful learning objectives. Though often considered a pro forma aspect of course design, when used properly as part of a backward design approach, learning objectives are truly the backbone of student learning.

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Posted in Course Design Showcase.

Passionate about teaching and learning, Helen enjoys showing instructors how to apply best pedagogical practices in Canvas to create dynamic courses that keep their students engaged.

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