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Thinking about Course Learning Objectives

As the University asks faculty to begin adding course-level learning objectives to our syllabuses, here are ideas for what these might look like, and how they can be useful to faculty and students. If you have a favorite learning objective for your course—one that really crystallized something for you, or changed your classroom practice in a key way, we’d love to hear about it and share examples in a future TEPlist. Email us a tep@uoregon.edu.

Ÿ What’s the context for this campus-wide effort to write learning objectives?

In Spring 2013, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, UO’s accreditor, recommended that the UO “intensify and focus its efforts to identify and publish expected course, general education, program, and degree learning outcomes” and commit leadership and resources to assessing student achievement of those objectives in ways that centralize the insights of teaching faculty.

ŸWhat is the purpose of course-level learning objectives (LOs)?

(1) LOs are the “guiding stars” of course design and daily practice.

The gold standard for course design is to begin the process by articulating LOs and then align the activities, tone, and assignments of the class with them. (This is called “backward design”—you start with where you want your students to end up, then work backward…)This may sound obvious, but it’s common to see courses that seem misaligned: an instructor thinks getting his students to think critically is the paramount objective of his course but teaches only through lecture and recall-based exams; a professor thinks its urgent for today’s students to slow down and develop detailed close-readings, but packs so many novels onto the syllabus that there’s never time to model or practice this in class.

A good set of LOs helps us know how to direct our efforts, divvy up class time, and even ensure we occasionally prioritize joy, or fun, or community. If you had an LO like, “Students will come to see themselves as a community of writers, developing and earning trust in one another through thoughtful, constructive critique,” then you might take more time early in the class to actually form a community—learn names, interview each other, attend an optional co-curricular event. Or you might devote time to clearly modeling what helpful peer feedback really looks like; peer reviews might be a part of the final grade in a class that aspires to be a learning community.

If it’s important to you that students be able to “use the rhetorical gestures of published academic argument in the field” then you might need to devote class time to naming these gestures; rather than just reading secondary sources for content alone, students might need to annotate them for writerly technique.

(2) LOs are student focused rather than teacher focused.

LOs remind us that even if we assign brilliant readings, even if we perform our hearts out at the podium, “teaching can and unfortunately does occur without learning” (Linda Nilson, Teaching at Its Best, 17). The best—and perhaps only—measure of successful teaching is in its influence on how students “think, act and feel” (Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 5). LOs direct our attention where it belongs: student learning.

(3) LOs suggest a reasonable level of faculty accountability for how we use student time and effort; and they help students see what they’re working toward.

Even as some faculty seek to complicate instrumentalist views education—“I need this course, this credit, this credential so that I can get this job, this lifestyle”—it seems fair enough that students should feel they’re moving purposely through the course and curriculum toward clear goals that they understand and share, not engaging in busy work for reasons that seem like mysterious impositions of the professor’s authority—“I’m doing this because… she told me to.” Ideally, LOs invite students to have a mature relationship to the “whys” of their own educations. When we articulate goals, students can buy into them, track their own progress toward them, see coherences across courses and co-curricular activities, use them—repeat them to families who thought they should major in X not Y, to employers who want to know just what they bring to the table.

ŸWhat is the genre?

(1) An LO is a succinct statement with a verb indicating exactly what students should be able to do at a given point in your course or its afterlife.

(2) Most of these student actions should be demonstrable through the completion of the tasks you assign. (Though I do think the best teachers have a couple of LOs that suggest student development well beyond the timeframe of the course itself.) Use verbs like “understand” and “appreciate” with caution because you can’t really observe or assess them. Instead, students might “translate,” “compare,” “interpret,” “recommend,” “appraise,” “predict,” “design,” or “rank.”

(2) These goals should have an appropriate level of rigor—they shouldn’t be easy, nor should they be impossible. With their diligent effort and your support, students should be able to achieve them.

(3) Some LOs should demand a high level of student cognition—if they’re all about memorizing and recalling information, that’s probably a missed opportunity for a university-level course.

(4) They should be in a language students can understand, not shrouded in specialist language.

ŸKinds of goals, samples

Some faculty think of LOs in terms of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy, considering a range of objectives that run from Bloom’s lowest or foundational level, knowledge (students remember/recall) to:

  • comprehension: students can explain/translates ideas and concepts;
  • application: students can use information in another context;
  • analysis: students can break down information into parts, identify patterns;
  • synthesis: students can combine information and ideas to create new knowledge; and, ultimately,
  • evaluation: students can make judgments/assess ideas and theories.

My own favorite list of types of objectives is from L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2003). I like it because it asks us to think about a fuller range of affective, developmental and “metacognitive” dimensions of student growth. It too begins with foundational knowledge, then works up to:

  • application: What do I want my students to be able to do (analyze, evaluate, calculate, critique, etc.)
  • integration: What kinds of connections do I want my student to be able to make (between my course and another, my course and the broader field, my course and their everyday lives, etc.)
  • human dimension: How do I want my students to grow in their understanding of themselves or others? What are the personal and social stakes of my class?
  • caring: Do I hope my students come to care about something more? How might the course impact their feelings, interests, and/or values?
  • learning how to learn: Have my students learned something about the process of learning itself that will help them in other courses and environments?

I might put some of these types of objectives/dimensions of learning into action with a list like, “Students in this class will…

  • summarize beautiful, complex storylines and identify rhetorical strategies authors employ in literary texts. (knowledge)
  • develop sophisticated written and oral arguments of their own about how these works function to enchant, trouble or compel readers to    deeper understanding of themselves and others. (application/human dimension)
  • Ÿ connect the concerns of these imaginative works to ongoing debates in American political and cultural life.”  (integration, caring)

One Instructor’s Process…
by Jason Schreiner, TEP faculty consultant and environmental studies instructor

Practically speaking, I begin writing learning objectives by asking myself three things:

  • What do I want students to understand (“to know” or “be able to do”)?
  • What process will help them gain this understanding?
  • What must they do to demonstrate to me, in a directly observable way, that they have gained understanding from the process?

For example, in my introductory course on environmental social sciences (ENVS 201), I want students to understand how certain major social scientific approaches explain social causes of environmental changes. I feel they can gain this understanding through readings and lectures to get pertinent context and background; discussion with each other and informal writing in class to work through competing ideas and to practice articulating arguments; feedback from me at various points along the way; and finally a formal oral or written exercise to explain their thinking and justify any conclusions.  I translate all of this into the following learning objective for the course: “students should be able to summarize and critique major social scientific interpretations of environmental change.”

Technically, I should insert “in writing” or “in a presentation” after “summarize and critique,” but I leave it somewhat vague because students engage in summary and critique in a variety of ways along the way (formative assessment) before culminating in different end products (summative assessments), which are specified in the course requirements. In short, I translate what they are supposed to “understand” into a process of learning experiences that includes several formative moments of active demonstration of their learning, with feedback, and summative demonstrations of learning (a written paper and an exam). Their “understanding” is directly observable in their ability to “summarize” and “critique” through a variety of means, and the extent of their meeting the learning objective for the course can therefore be assessed. And what I hope “sticks” for students is that critical inquiry is indeed a process, that arguments and insights are results of thoughtful, constructive, ongoing engagement with others. (I should note that I also have students include a reflection about their learning when they submit their summative paper, in which they describe briefly how they developed their thinking and arrived at a particular conclusion.  This forces students to think through and outline their process of learning, which helps me determine the effectiveness of the process and the merit of the learning objective; such reflection also prevents students from simply turning in an end product that they might get from someone else.)

By approaching learning objectives in this manner, it allows me to focus on students’ learning experiences, identifying what and how they’ll learn, how I’ll assess it and provide constructive feedback, which activities and teaching methods will facilitate and motivate the process, and finally what content will best serve as the focus of our collective consideration. The key is to translate what they’re supposed to know and be able to do into a process that includes moments of student demonstration and instructor feedback, sprinkled with some reflection and, I hope, some fun.

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