Learning objectives

I released a new policy on stating learning objectives to my colleagues this week:
As of Fall 2008, all syllabi or course policy documents for SI courses are required to include a section defining learning objectives. Learning objectives are not the same as a teacher’s course goals, as usually written:

Instructional goal statements, it should be noted, are written from the teacher’s point of view. [T]hey serve to indicate what topics, issues, facts or principles will be taught and emphasized. The … advantage of spelling them out is that they serve to draw attention to, and help emphasize, the most fundamental and ultimate purposes of a course (understanding, knowing, appreciating something). The problem, however, is that there usually exists no direct, straightforward way of ascertaining whether or not they have been achieved once the course is over.
Learning objectives, on the other hand, are more precise and specific statements of what it is a student will be able to do — what performance outcomes will be possible — once learning has taken place. Learning objectives are written from the learner’s point of view and employ concrete action words such as “identify”, “solve”, “construct”, “compare”, “estimate”, “measure”, “contrast’, or “demonstrate”. (Lucas, Christopher J.~ and John W. Murray, Jr., New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners (Palgrave: New York, 2002), p.~53.)

Explicit learning objectives serve several valuable purposes. First, they help a student answer the question “Am I going to acquire knowledge and skills that correspond with my needs and interests”? Second, they are a valuable guide to the instructor in preparing course material: “What readings should I assign, what should homework assignments look like, what material should I cover in lecture to help students reach the learning objectives?” And third, they provide a benchmark against which to evaluate the success of a course offering, from which revisions and improvements can be made.
Indeed, one characteristic of good learning objectives is that they be stated in terms that are measurable (qualitatively or quantitatively), so that the performance of the course may be assessed. Our goal at SI is continuous improvement in our curriculum and instructional methods. Though we have not adopted a formal assessment and improvement policy, the following policy from the Twin Cities (Minnesota) Learning Assessment Council is a reasonable description of our practice (Twin Cities Learning Assesment Council, “Statement of Foundations for Learning Assessment”, http://academic.umn.edu/provost/teaching/cesl_statement.html, 2003.):

Effective assessment thus involves:

  • making our goals explicit and public;
  • setting appropriate criteria and high standards;
  • systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to ascertain how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and
  • using the results to document, explain, and improve teaching and learning.

For advice on how to prepare effective learning objectives for your course, you might consult: