The Problem with Learning Objectives

Introduction

At some point considering the learning objective can be tiresome. We want to do exciting things and make learning happen in our online courses, but we have the requirement of good housekeeping to attend to. “Inform the learner of the objective.” In too many cases, this information just takes up space and earns the instructor a meaningless check on a quality rubric.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can look at learning objectives in a different light.

In fact, we’ve muddied the water with our use of learning objectives. We’ve confused the role of the objective as a design tool versus a communication tool. The learning objective can be both – but we must be intentional about it.

Principles of Instructional Design

Principles of Instructional Design was once a staple in university curricula

Instructors who have had any pedagogical training likely will have been introduced to Robert Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. The events include gaining the learners’ attention, informing them of the objectives, stimulating recall of prior learning and so forth. All too often, following the 9 events like a recipe card leads to the obligatory screen that dutifully lists all of the course’s objectives.

We see it all of the time in online learning – the topic that lists all of the objectives, sometimes well written, sometimes not.

A study conducted by Florence Martin, James Klein, and Howard Sullivan (Martin, Klein, Sullivan, 2007) and published in the British Journal of Educational Technology looked at a computer literacy course that was designed with various treatments with one key element of instruction removed. Elements included statement of objectives, examples, review and practice. The treatment that removed the statement of objectives did not show a drop in scores. It didn’t matter if the objectives were left out or in. So why the obsession with objectives? By comparison, the treatment that removed practice showed a significant drop. (1)

The treatment that included objectives included one screen per section. The screens, we’re told by the researchers, ranged from 79 to 82 words per section, not dissimilar to how we use objectives in online courses today.

In an attempt to improve on the use of objectives, we remind ourselves that objectives should meet the conditions of audience, behavior, context and degree. The advice is good, but only in the context of design. When objectives are used as design tool, it makes sense to think about audience, behavior, context and degree. But when objectives are a communication tool, we need to question whether learners want to read a technical objective rather than a statement that excites and motivates them to engage in the online course. In short, technically correct instructional objectives are the tool of the designer – what students need is quite different.

In at a least a couple of popular online evaluation processes, as reviewers, we look for objectives, judge if they are well written according to something like R.F. Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, and evaluate whether or not they are aligned to the courses’ assessments and activities.

Clearly, the practice of writing objectives is important to the design of a course – but what should we communicate to students?

Research points us in the right direction – and the research uncovers a very clear problem with objectives. To explore objectives further, let’s separate our concerns. We’ll look at them from the designer’s point of view and then from the student’s.

From the designer’s point of view

Well-written objectives help instructors design courses well. They spell out the type of knowledge and the level of learning. We know that we need a very different type of learning activity to teach how to perform an angioplasty versus how to choose the type of coronary stent to use in a given situation. To state the obvious, the first objective requires observation, practice in a non-life-threatening situation (e.g. mannequin), and repeated practice under the observation of an experienced physician. The second requires knowledge of the critical patient attributes that favor one type of stent and procedure over another and practice with decision-making in increasing complex situations.

The design of instruction also improves when we specify the audience, the condition and the degree. Are these first year students with little surgical experience or quite a different group? Are the conditions optimum or do they simulate a more stressed setting? Related to degree, what measurement do we need in order to indicate that the student is performing the task well enough. Is an outcome of four out of five successful procedures or decisions good enough?

Specificity is important to the designer. Establishing specific objectives helps us choose the right assessments and activities. The principle of backward design requires us to start with well written outcomes and work backwards to activities.

As an aside, I would concede that, in the ‘wild’, instructors often start in the middle. We collect content; create activities – all in the process of discovering what we really want to do and what is important. Designing eLearning can be a discovery process and in that process we refine objectives, write new ones…toss out a few. This may be heresy to many – but it is an admission that designing instruction is a creative process. In the end, however, it is important for us to arrive at the objectives and then shine their light on everything in the course. In other words, review whether or not activities and assessments belong in the course and how strongly aligned they are to the outcomes.

Flavia Vieira, in her blog “Learning to Teaching” underscores the importance of objectives.

The way you choose to define them affects all that you do as a teacher, because objectives stand for what you believe is the goal of your and your students’ actions; they show your personal perception of the teaching-learning situation; they reflect your teaching and testing priorities; they determine your choice of activities and materials; they influence your teaching procedures, your attitude towards learner errors, even your teaching pace; ultimately, they determine the kind of learning that occurs in your classroom.  (3)

From the learner’s point of view

Some of the research shows that stating learning objectives does make a difference – but only when used correctly by both the instructor and the student. One interesting source is the Debunkers club and includes several targets (common misunderstandings) that the site uses research to expose.

The Debunkers club is curated by Wil Thalheimer and Paul Kirschner. Wil Thalheimer reviews educational research and distills their findings for the benefit of practitioners who either don’t know how to digest research or simply do not have the time.

Thalheimer states that:

The research that has been done on learning objectives has shown that presenting learners with learning objectives produces benefits because it helps learners focus attention on the targeted aspects of the learning material (Rothkopf & Billington, 1979). To be more specific, if a learning objective targets Concept X, then learners are more likely to pay attention to aspects of the learning material that are relevant to Concept X, and are less likely to pay attention to aspects of the learning material not relevant to Concept X.

Simply, if learning objectives are to be useful at all to the learner, they must be written in a straightforward manner that communicates to the learner what he or she should pay attention to. The learner should know clearly that the intention of this course is not to memorize the historical dates, for example, but state the significance of a specific event in history. Flashcards with dates won’t help the student. Remembering the details of a military campaign won’t help the student. Understanding the root cause of an event and its effect on the social-political environment of the time may be of paramount importance. The student should concern herself with analysis and not sweat the small details.

Sal Khan in his videos on permutations and combinations stresses that memorizing the formulas may impede understanding.  Rather than memorizing the formula for a permutation, students should be able to reconstruct the formula from their understanding of how it works.

In short, the statement of objective helps us to focus students on what is important. Thalheimer goes on to recommend against generally worded objectives. The more specific, the better. And he recommends against the multi-part objective (audience, behavior, context and degree) when communicating to students. Thalheimer summarizes research that underscores the importance of learning objectives in helping students set goals, focus on relevant information and to evaluate their learning against the stated objectives – all important meta-cognitive activities.

If we don’t communicate objectives to focus students’ attention on what is important, then we should, at least, excite students about the subject. In corporate training, we often see the WIIFM replace the listing of objectives. The WIIFM or ‘What’s in it for me’ stresses the relevance of the learning to the learner. Research does support the role of motivation in learning.

Finally, instructional objectives can be dangerous. If we get complacent with good test results and declare ‘mission accomplished’ on our objectives, we have missed the whole darn point. The purpose of training and education is the transfer of learning. In training we want to see business results. In education, we want to see the online course contribute to the development of the student and success in future courses and beyond. Just as the ill-conceived learning objective takes up space on the page, so too the badly designed course in the student’s life. The course is part of a meaningless exchange of dollars for credits.

In contrast, the meaningful objective contributes to student learning and plays a part in a well-articulated curriculum that promotes student’s growth in the course and beyond. We need to be intentional about our use of objectives. And then move to more interesting stuff.

Resources

  1.  Martin, F., Klein, J. D., & Sullivan, H. (2007). The impact of instructional elements in computer-based instruction. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(4), 623-636. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2006.00670.x
  2. http://www.debunker.club/
  3. http://aliancistatlv.blogspot.com/2012/08/language-learning-objectives-do-make.html
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