Better Objectives, Better Course

By Star Boe, Instructional Design Specialist

Objectives can go by many names. Learning Objectives, Outcomes, Learning Outcomes, Student Learning Objectives (SLO), Student Learning Outcomes (also SLO) are just some of the terms you will hear. While some educators feel strongly about one term over another, I am going to just proceed with the generic term “objectives.”

Let me explain what I mean when I use the term objective. Dictionary.com defines objective as “something that one’s efforts or actions are intended to attain or accomplish; purpose; goal; target.” The connection to effort and intention go well with the expectations we have for students as they engage with our material. However, I don’t like the connection that is drawn to “goal.”

Instructors often start with a goal. Goals are broad and often aspirational, such as:

  • Students will appreciate art from a wide variety of time periods, styles, and techniques.
  • Students will acquire an understanding of major biological concepts and awareness of how these are connected with areas of the biological, physical, and social sciences.
  • Criminal Justice students will exhibit critical thinking skills in their analysis of competing and complex principles and sources of information within Criminal Justice.

Goals are a fine place to want to end up, but courses need additional structure if you want students to reach these goals.

Think of goals like the roof of a house. The overall protection and coverage it offers is critical, but to be effective, it needs to be built on top of walls. Objectives are the walls or framework of your course. With a good framework in place, you have the necessary support for the roof. 

Objectives

 

Objectives need to be observable and measurable. One way to get started in the right direction is to begin your objectives with an action verb. There are many lists of action verbs available online. Often these verbs are grouped together into levels based on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

An accessible long description of Bloom’s Taxonomy image is available.

Blooms 

Bloom’s pyramid is arranged from lower order thinking skills up to higher order skills. Beginning level courses are more likely to focus on the lower order thinking skills. As course numbers get higher, the thinking level should be higher as well.

When you are selecting verbs, keep in mind how they fit with your planned assessments. Since your objectives will be observable and measurable, you will want to make sure your assessments are measuring each student for their level of attainment on each of the objectives.

For example, if one objective was: “The student will describe the stages of mitosis,” yet your unit test was 50 multiple choice questions, you have not provided the students with an opportunity to describe the stages of mitosis. You can’t say the student attained the objective because the type of assessment didn’t line up with stated objective.

This 4.5 minute Writing Learning Objectives video does a great job of bringing all of these concepts together. 

So why invest the time to think through and rewrite your objectives?

One reason is to prepare for your course review. At Vol State all online and hybrid courses are reviewed using the Quality Matters Rubric. A key characteristic that QM requires in a course is alignment.

Quality Matters explains it this way:

“The concept of alignment is intended to convey the idea that critical course components work together to ensure that learners achieve the desired learning outcomes. Measurable course and module/unit learning objectives or competencies form the basis of alignment in a course. Other elements of the course, including those addressed in Standards 2.2, 3.1, 4.1, 5.1, and 6.1, contribute to the accomplishment of the learning objectives or competencies.”

Another, even more important, reason to invest time and energy into your objectives is that it builds intentionality into your course. Your students will know what is expected of them, and you will know how you will assess them for content mastery.

Universal Design for Learning Principle 3: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

AFFECIVE NETWORKS:

THE WHY OF LEARNING

Brain

© CAST

Engagement: For purposeful, motivated learners,  stimulate interest and motivation for learning.

The third principle of UDL is Provide Multiple Means of Engagement. The affective network represents the “why” of learning. It identifies the importance of engaging and motivating learners.  Variations in culture, personal relevance, subjectivity and background knowledge are factors that can effect motivation and engagement. Learners have significant differences in what attracts their attention and engages their interest.

Guideline 7. Provide options for recruiting interest

Instructors understand that interested learners engage with the material being presented. What is harder to determine is how to pique the interest of students. The interest level from one learner to another can vary, and a learner’s interest level can change over time and in different circumstances.

Examples of Implementation

  • Provide Service Learning
  • Incorporate Problem-Based Learning.
  • Give students the chance to shape their own academic goals for the course.
  • Provide learning materials from a variety of sources. Different authors/content creators have different backgrounds and viewpoints that different students may connect with.
  • Encourage personal responses and self-evaluations from students.
  • Build the course with enough structure to provide guidance, but enough novelty to engage student attention.

Guideline 8. Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence

Many kinds of learning require sustained attention and effort to master the course material. Learners differ in their ability to manage these requirements for themselves. By providing options, an instructor can support different levels of motivation and self-regulation skills.

Examples of Implementation

  • Remind students of unit and course goals. For each assignment, identify which course or unit objectives the assignment will be targeting.
  • Encourage students to break large projects and goals into smaller projects and goals. Instructors can provide checkpoints as a way to encourage students to be making progress on big projects.
  • Provide learners with examples of excellent work. These examples can be past student works, rubrics or discussions that guide students toward investing the necessary time and effort for quality work.
  • Provide variety in the difficulty level of course activities, some activities should be easier while others should take significant effort.

Guideline 9. Provide options for self-regulation

Self-regulation is the ability “to strategically modulate one’s emotional reactions or states in order to be more effective at coping and engaging with the environment” (CAST, 2011, p. 32). Often these skills are not addressed explicitly within a class. Providing choices for learners with different aptitudes and prior experiences can allow learners to manage their own engagement in the course.

  • Model self-regulation in your communication. For example, “I plan to go to an event on Tuesday evening, so I have blocked out time this weekend to grade your papers,” or “Let me think about my response to that question, I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”
  • Encourage students to develop relationships with instructors, coaches, or other mentors.
  • As part of the coursework, provide opportunities for self-refection. Journaling, goal setting, and providing opportunities to express emotions encourages learners to develop self-regulation.
  • Encourage students to maintain a growth mindset when they encounter difficult material.
  • If a student is noticeably struggling with emotional self-regulation, consider pointing them to Student Services resources that may provide the support they need.

CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author. Retrieved from UDLCenter.org