Talking Teaching

September 27, 2010

the vexed question of learning objectives

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!)


  1. I have a question about applying LOs correctly and their use in the classroom. In primary and secondary schools, the teachers write LOs, but they aren’t generally shared with the class, at least in my experience. In college, when the instructor does write them, they are generally shared with the class. I have seen an increasing tendency that the more detailed the LOs, the more the students have the expectation that nothing other than what is on the LOs is required to make an A. It has gotten to the point in some classes that if it it not explicitly stated on the LOs, it is not allowed to be tested on because the students will complain to the Dean that the professor is being unfair and the Dean usually agrees with them. I have already been told that we can’t expect them to read, so if we don’t say it in class, we can’t test on it. This is NOT a university-wide policy, I should say. It is simply the reaction of individual departments to student complaints. Here, student opinion makes a huge impact on what and how we teach, to the point that student opinion impacts curricula (which I think is terrible because how are freshmen med students supposed to know what they need to learn to be effective doctors?).

    Some people have responded to this issue by simply not providing LOs anymore. Others have responded by eliminating any question not directly covered in the LOs and making their LOs unbelievably detailed, e.g. the student will know the following muscles on the forearm, their attachment points, and their function. They will also know which specific nerve innervates each muscle, as well as the following blood vessels that supply the muscles. They will be able to explain what would happen under these circumstances…”

    I should be clear that writing LOs is a good idea, if for nothing else for organizing just exactly what you want the students to learn so you can gear your teaching methods, lectures, and assignments to that end and pare down what is not needed to acheive those objectives. I also agree that they are beneficial for the student if they are clearly written. My question is in balancing student desires and expectations with the LOs. I don’t think either the abandonment of LOs or the ridiculously detailed LOs are appropriate.

    The LOs I’ve seen written by secondary school teachers seem reasonably balanced for the most part and those are the guide I’ve seen in my teaching methods classes. But I don’t think the Deans and department heads have ever really had any training in these type of LOs, so they are responding in a variety of fashions.

    I think your call for teacher education at the university level is right on. It has always seemed odd to me that we need a degree in education to teach kindergarten, but no experience at all is necessary to teach in college. I can teach anatomy to med students, but I am not allowed to teach basic biology to middle school kids. Very strange.

    Ok,that was very rambling. But I would appreciate any comments and suggestions about writing good, balanced LOs and dealing with student expectations. Even if I am restricted at my med school in what I can do, I have free rein at the undergraduate university where I also teach. I am also wondering when would be the best time to give them the LOs. Do you think it better to try to give them everything at the beginning of the course (which then runs the risk of needing to be altered later on) or wait until each section so you can give more explicit LOs (which leaves them without at the beginning)?

    Comment by jdmimic — September 28, 2010 @ 2:25 am

    • Hmmm. I guess my attitude to LOs reflects my original training as a secondary teacher :) As a result many of them are rather general – here’s a few from my plant lectures for the first-years:
      • Explain the significance of plants to life on Earth and to human history.
      • Define endosymbiosis;
      • Outline the evidence for endosymbiosis;
      • Discuss the evolutionary significance of endosymbiosis;
      In other words, they’re reasonably broad & so don’t pin me down on the details of what I’m going to cover. Making them much more detailed also makes them far too long – no-one’s going to read them anyway, & students seeing a long list like that at the start of a lecture are going to be totally put off. This way, they get a reasonably good guidance as to the content they should be aware of, & they also – because they’re clued up on the expectations around ‘explain, outline, discuss etc’ – are aware of the skills they need to demonstrate. I think the word I want is ‘process’ skills? Anyway, the kids know that a simple list in response to a ‘discuss’ question is not exactly going to get them very far.

      Students, unfortunately, do seem to have that expectation that we’ll ‘teach them what they need to know to pass the exam.’ To me, writing very detailed LOs only exacerbates that. Far better to make it clear what they haveto be able to do, in order to gain a pass, but leave it open enough that the good students can work with you to expand their knowledge & their understanding beyond that basic level. Looking at the course appraisal feedback, they do seem to recognise how to use LOs & what the intention is in providing them:
      * Extremely! I use them to study for tests. I make question-&-answer cards with them.
      * Yes, this helps increase our understanding of each topic/lecture if students go back in their own time & answer these learning objectives. THESE MUST BE KEPT!
      * Yes! The learning objectives were VERY useful! As we knew what to study and learn as there is so much to take in, in the paper. It highlights main points.

      So I think we’ve got a fairly good shared understanding of what’s involved there.

      At the moment I give these at the start of each lecture – I’m also required to give the overall paper learning objectives/outcomes in the paper outline that’s included with their study guide at the start of the semester. Several of the students commented (via the appraisal) that they’d rather have the lecture LOs in the actual study guide & not have to write them down for each lecture (which rather missed the point that said LOs are on the ppt pdf prior to the lecture & also on the lecture recordings in panopto, but I digress). I’ve said I’ll do that for them – but I’ll also make it quite clear that I reserve the right to change the objectives if I rejig or rethink my lectures (& of course I’ll let them know that on the day!)

      I hope all that makes sense – I’ve been writing it in drips & drabs between student appointments & as a result it feels a bit disjointed!

      Comment by alison — September 28, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

      • Yes, it does make sense. Thank you very much for your advice. It definitely helps.

        Comment by jdmimic — September 29, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

      • Glad to be able to help out :) And it’s always good discussing things with you here!

        Comment by alison — October 3, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

  2. “I should be clear that writing LOs is a good idea,…”
    Curse the missed editing opportunities. I meant to say, that I think writing LOs is a good idea, as obviously not everyone agrees with that sentiment. Some people think they are a waste of time and just more paperwork in a busy schedule.

    Comment by jdmimic — September 28, 2010 @ 2:29 am

  3. […] I’ve had three fairly lively discussions about learning outcomes in our university papers.  (It’s well blogged already – e.g. here, but I’ll add some things to the mix). The concept is hardly new, but it is only just being […]

    Pingback by Learning Outcomes « Talking Teaching — November 17, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

  4. I may be setting myself up for a challenge here, but I would argue that one should not ask questions beyond that which is defined by the learning objectives. If something is not an ‘objective’ of the learning unit, then it should not be assessed. If it is, then it should be in the Learning objectives.
    But as Allison says, the key is in how those learning objectives are phrased. I also define them for the ‘unit’: that is not just the lecture, but also everything else that comes with it: independent reading, associated labs, tutorials etc. The lecture is just a part of the learning ‘unit’. And perhaps that is where us without proper teaching training fail at defining LO’s: limiting them to our lecture alone.
    I have now (as of next year) moved from calling them LO’s to describing them as ‘competencies’ because I like the vibe of the word a bit better and it breaks out from the [false] association that learning is just the rote part. The word competencies lets me use verbs like ‘extrapolate’, ‘generalize’, ‘identify the principles’, ‘design an experiment’, ‘predict’, ‘relate’ that are targeted to a higher cognitive level of learning (and which I try to accommodate to the stage of the course, and which of course will not be achieved from the lectures alone).

    Comment by kubke — November 18, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: