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Importance of Learning Objectives

Writing Learning Objectives

Learning objectives ideally describe a direction for the student acquiring new knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Every decision you make about your lecture or small group session should depend on what you hope your students will be able to do as a result of your session.

Why are learning objectives important? As an expert in your field, you probably already have a good idea of what you want your students to learn during your time with them.  Taking a few minutes before you finalize your session content and activities to capture those objectives is a worthwhile investment – in the development of successful learning experiences for your students and in your own development as an educator. 

More specifically, learning objectives

  • Force you to look again.  The exercise of writing or rewriting objectives prompts you to examine content you may have been teaching in much the way way for years, but with a new perspective.
  • Help you trim the fatAllowing your learning objectives to drive your content or activity can result in discovering extraneous content that may be trimmed or an activity that doesn’t quite hit the target and needs tweaking.  You may simply be inspired to reorganize a meandering PowerPoint with your learning objectives as an outline.
  • Can make your session “fall in line.”  Once written, learning objectives can confirm a solid alignment or organization of learning activities and assessments or suggest that a fresh pass at your design of the learning experience is needed.  For example, they are invaluable in helping you create your quiz questions – indeed, a quiz should measure whether your objectives have been met.
  • Can provide opportunities to present a more rich and challenging learning experience for your students. Your learning objectives will illuminate the order, whether higher or lower, to which you are asking your students to think, process, and learn during your session.
  • Be a guide for your studentsWhen displayed to students, learning objectives set student expectations, guide their learning processes, and help them focus their study time for the upcoming exam(s).

How do I write good learning objectives? 

Every learning opportunity can have its own objectives, from a multi-session unit to a single lecture or assignment.  

  • Good learning objectives are clear, concise, and specific statements describing a student’s behaviors. Only a few short bullet points per activity should be necessary.
  • Learning objective template:  “At the end of this (session, lecture, activity, etc.), students will be able to ____ (insert an action verb).
  • Good learning objectives are specific and measurable statements stating what specifically students be able to do differently after your instructional activity (i.e., not statements on what the instructor will do) 

Objectives should not contain such vague outcomes as "Students will understand…" or "Students will know…" This is not to say that students should never simply acquire knowledge, but you will be more likely to measure this knowledge when students "Describe," "List," or "Identify" that knowledge.   For example:

After the lecture on “bioenergetics,” students should be able to          

            Weak Use of Verbs

Understand the uncoupling of the electron transport chain from ATP synthesis and the physiological consequences

            Improved

Describe the uncoupling of the electron transport chain from ATP synthesis and the physiological consequences

            Note: Understanding, per se, cannot be measured.  Words such as know,     understand, and learn are open to many interpretations and thus not truly      measurable.

  • Good learning objectives are actual outcomes and not simply activities students will complete or things you will do as an instructor. For example, "Students will write a research paper…" is the start of an assignment, not an objective for learning.

Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) is very helpful in writing learning objectives for the cognitive (knowing), psychomotor (doing: skill), and affective (attitude) domains. Much of the medical school curriculum focuses on the cognitive domain, which Bloom categorized into 6 levels, starting from simple recall or recognition of facts (knowledge) level, through increasingly more complex and abstract mental levels, to the highest order (evaluation.) 

Here are some examples of action verbs that represent each of the six cognitive levels, from lowest to highest, which you should consider using: 

Knowledge:  define, list, name, order, recognize, recall, label

Comprehension: classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, report, review

Application:  apply, choose, demonstrate, illustrate, practice, solve, use

Analysis:  analyze, appraise, calculate, compare/contrast, differentiate, diagram

Synthesis: arrange, assemble, construct, design, formulate, prepare, write

Evaluation: assess, argue, judge, predict, rate, evaluate, score, choose

  • Example of a learning objective at various cognitive levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:

After the lecture on dizziness, students will be able to

            Lower level

            Name the five causes of dizziness (lower level of cognition; simple recall)

            Higher Level  

            Given a patient case description, determine the three most likely causes of dizziness (higher level of cognition). 

Note: Ideally, a quiz question would present a clinical case and ask students to determine the cause of dizziness (i.e., apply knowledge) rather than just recognize causes from a five-option multiple-choice question.

For more information on Bloom’s taxonomy, including action verbs for writing learning objectives, see http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/bloom.html

  • Good learning objectives are realistic and doable for the learner’s level.  

They should include a range of actions appropriate to the students' year and incoming knowledge and the expected competencies for the course. For example, when students are exposed to a new body of knowledge, you will probably instruct them to "Define" or "Recall," but, over time, they should be moved to "Analyze" and "Interpret."

  • Good learning objectives are consistent with the goals of the course/curriculum.

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