The Continuous Improvement Cycle and Learning Objectives

Continuous Improvement CycleA few weeks ago I asked a friend, “What are you grateful for?” She responded, “I’m grateful I’m able to play a G chord on the guitar. I couldn’t do that a year ago.”

I appreciated her answer for two reasons:

  • I’m her guitar teacher. She’s progressing!
  • She made me reflect on how I teach.


When I teach—from freebie guitar lessons to classroom assignments to online course design—I use a continuous improvement cycle to improve my learning objectives and therefore my instruction.

Noted in the illustration, a continuous improvement cycle is an ongoing process of:

  • Creating a plan.
  • Implementing the plan.
  • Gathering and assessing data to determine the efficacy of the plan.
  • Modifying the plan to improve it based on data assessment.
  • Finalizing the new plan and rolling it through the cycle again.


The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has published a very informative white paper on continuous improvement in education.

Using a continuous improvement cycle to improve learning objectives is paramount because learning objectives determine everything we do when instructing our students. Learning objectives:

  • Govern what we teach and what we don’t teach.
  • Direct our teaching methods.
  • Determine our assessment techniques.
  • Provide guidance to students throughout the learning process.


For details on writing great objectives, please read two blogs Distributed Education has posted on the subject, one by Dr. Rhonda Gregory and the other by Star Boe. But right now, let me show you what my guitar student got me thinking about.

Individual Instruction and the Continuous Improvement Cycle

Here’s how I use the continuous improvement cycle to improve my guitar teaching and student performance:

  • Each lesson plan has objectives directing us toward the student’s broader musical objectives.
  • Part of doing a lesson is assessing the student’s playing. I do this for two reasons:
    • If the student progressed, we move forward.
    • If she practiced and didn’t progress, I assess and modify my previous lesson’s objectives and teaching strategy because my lesson plan is the problem, not the student.


I often find I need to break the previous lesson down into smaller learning units. I need more focused objectives and more specific demonstrations and assignments.

Classroom Homework and the Continuous Improvement Cycle

A few years ago, I started using the continuous improvement cycle when writing face-to-face classroom homework assignments:

  • I’d write a draft homework plan.
  • Students would review and comment on the plan and we’d modify it together in class.
  • After grading the assignment, I would assess student performance. If grades were skewed, I knew the instructions needed modification.
  • I’d repeat the process the following semester with a new class.


Course Design and the Continuous Improvement Cycle

Here at Vol State, we use the Quality Matters (QM) peer review process in online course design. By definition and practice, QM is a continuous improvement cycle. At Vol State, a course goes through a QM review:

  • Every three to four years.
  • When the course textbook is changed or a course developer significantly alters a course.
  • Whenever a course developer asks for a QM review. Also, Distributed Education can give any course developer the tools to do a QM “self-review” of a course.


I used a continuous improvement cycle in course design before I came to Vol State. I inherited an online cartography (map design) course I taught regularly for several years. I modified course objectives and teaching strategies for this course regularly:

  • Maps are made to provide data to solve problems. The course I inherited had this goal nailed, so I made few changes here.
  • Maps must be readable by the intended audience. We had good objectives on this goal, but I added readings, instruction, and assessments. We said we were teaching this, but we weren’t.
  • Maps must be beautiful. The course did not touch on this goal at all when I inherited the class. I wrote course and module level objectives to address this aspect of cartography. I met these new objectives by working aesthetics into my grading rubrics. I then added discussions providing students with opportunities to conduct peer-to-peer critiques of their maps. Finally, I used third-party assignments in map design so students could get design and aesthetic ideas from folks other than their professor and peers.


Because I used a continual improvement cycle to improve course objectives and instruction methods, I was satisfied with the course after teaching it for three years or so. It was a long process but well worth it.

Everyone Can Help In the Continuous Improvement Cycle

If you’re not a master course developer, you can still help in the continuous improvement cycle of courses you teach:

  • If you find errors in a copy of a master course, please let the course developer know.
  • When students provide feedback, summarize it and forward it to the course developer. Student feedback is valuable data for course improvement.
  • Provide your ideas for course improvement to the course developer.


Improving course objectives and overall instruction using a continuous improvement cycle is important. Input from several different stakeholders helps the process along, too. Continuous improvement is best done through teamwork.