If you’re a secondary teacher you’re probably very used to the idea & application of learning objectives – those things that you would like students to learn as a result of your classes. Tertiary teachers use them as well, but I suspect that for many they are implicit, or perhaps not even stated at all – instead they’re something one has in the back of one’s mind when designing courses & writing lectures.
Now, I think this is something that we uni lecturers really need to address. In my institution the need to do this is relatively pressing, as having clearly-stated learning objectives in our paper outlines is one of the KPIs (aka Key Performance Indicators) of our newly-revised Teaching & Learning Plan. So the other day Marcus & I met with some colleagues to talk about the whole vexed issue, before we start moving towards meeting the KPIs across the Faculty (some Departments are well on the way to this already).
I say ‘vexed’ because I just know that this issue is going to generate quite a bit of heat. And probably much of that is because the uni system is such that most lecturers aren’t trained teachers. This isn’t to criticise their teaching, but just to note that the lack of teacher training means that many won’t have been exposed to any of the literature around teaching methods, for example. For most of my colleagues, teaching is something you learn about as you go, & it’s quite possibly a fair bet that much of what’s done is modelled on the way that we ourselves were taught.
I’m not a brilliant example here either. OK, I learned all about learning objectives when I did my teacher training, & that’s certainly been reinforced by the various tasks I’ve been involved with through the NZQA. So I’ve always thought quite hard about what I’d like students to take from my lectures, and I’ve always told them the key take-home messages. But it’s only recently that I’ve taken to spelling them out in writing, because it really sank in (as a result of working on the Uni’s teaching & learning plan) that saying these things truly isn’t sufficient – they need to be written down so that students can refer to them later.
So now all my lectures have a slide at the beginning that lists the learning objectives (LOs) for the class, beginning with the phrase “after this lecture – & the associated readings! – you should be able to: …”, and using words like describe, explain, determine, discuss. (Avoid words like ‘understand’ or ‘demonstrate understanding of’ as they don’t really give any indication of how a student would know that they could do this.) Last semester I included a question on the students’ thoughts about this, in the paper appraisal questionnaire – the response was overwhelmingly positive, with students saying that they use LOs in revision, preparing for tests & exams, & that LOs make it quite clear (ie transparent) what they need to know. This isn’t spoon-feeding, incidentally; my LOs aren’t simply a list of things the students have to remember. I make it quite clear – eg through the use of those words ‘explain’ & ‘discuss’, which they’re very familiar with from the NCEA – that I’m not simply after rote learning of responses. (This, of course, has to be backed up by assessment items that test these higher-order cognitive skills. Because students tend to be assessment-focused, they’ll very quickly take on board what we do, rather than what we say, in the area of assessment. I can feel anothe r post coming on…) Writing them was also good for my teaching, as it made me focus on what really was important. And it was also very helpful when it came to writing assessment items :)
That transparency (of intent, as well as about content) really is important. After all, we’re surely not out to trick students, or fool them. LOs really do need to tell the students how they’ll know when they’ve done what’s needed to succeed. That’s actually where the conversation Marcus & I had with the others got quite interesting, because it really highlighted for us why some degree of teacher education is so important. Our colleagues think carefully & deeply about what they’d like students to know at the end of a paper, or a program of study, but this was couched in terms of how they’d know students had succeeded in this. “80% of students will pass a term test”, for example. But the question here, of course, is how would the students know that they’d probably reached a level of understanding that would see them in that 80%?
We talked about this for a while, & then got on to a related (& very interesting) question: isn’t all this rather subjective? After all, it’s still the lecturer making the decision on whether students have met the LOs. And yes, it is, but there are ways to ensure it’s done as objectively as possible. Part of this, again, is related to how student achievement is determined. Take the essay my students are writing at the moment. I wrote the questions (they’ve got a choice of three) – and then I wrote the marking rubric for each one: what I’d expect to see (without actually writing the essay for them!) and the marks they’ll get for each bit. And then both the rubrics & a brief outline of the key things I’ll be looking for were posted on the Moodle page for this paper. Again, this is not dumbing down or making it too easy for them – they still have to find the information, marshall their arguments, & write the essay. But it is beng transparent. I’m not out to fool them – why should they have to second-guess me in the matter of what I’m looking for in this particular piece of work?
So, I think some valuable things came out of that meeting, & they’ll be helpful for Marcus in organising the next teaching advocacy workshop for the Faculty. Small steps, but we’re on the road. (And I guess you can see that the subject for the session after that will probably be assessment. Now there’s a biggie!)