Many people – from award-winning educators to rookies and everyone in between – find writing learning objectives a challenge. The typical advice of write out who will do what under what conditions is vague, so it’s often not very helpful.
“General” learning objectives – from our UGME Competency Framework, aka the Red Book* – are already assigned to your course, and possibly to your session by your course director. (The Red Book’s 7th edition is forthcoming; the link will be updated automatically).
The key task for instructors is to take these general objectives and annotate them with specific objectives for their sessions, including what level of learning, such as comprehension, application or analysis. (This is from something called “Bloom’s Taxonomy”, if you’re interested in the research behind this).
A natural starting point is: What do you want your learners to take away from your session? (Or, if you’re creating an independent learning plan, as in the case of the new Scholar block in Clerkship: “ What do I want to accomplish in this block?”)
Frequently the response is:
- “I want them to know….” / “I want to know…”
- “I want them to understand….” / “I want to understand…”
- “I want them to be able to…” / “I want to be able to…”
Once you’ve wrestled something like this into sentences, I realize it’s disheartening to have someone like me come along and say, “Uh, no, that’s not up to scratch.”
What’s wrong with “know” and “understand”? Isn’t that exactly what we’d like learners to walk away with – knowledge, understanding, skills? Absolutely. The challenge with these so-called “bad objective verbs” is that we can’t measure them through assessment. How do we know they know?
That’s the starting point for writing a better learning objective. If you want to assess that learners know something, how will you assess that?
For example, while we can’t readily assess if a learner “understands” a concept, we can assess whether they can “define”, “describe”, “analyze”, or “summarize” material.
Here’s my “secret” that I use all the time to write learning objectives – I can’t memorize anything to save my life, so I rely on what I informally call my Verb Cheat Sheet. The one I’ve used for many years was published by Washington Hospital Centre, Office of Continuing Medical Education. It list cognitive domains (levels) and suggests verbs for each one. There are many such lists available on the Internet if you search “learning objectives” (here’s another one that’s more colourful than my basic chart, below).
Well-written learning objectives can help learners focus on what material they need to learn and what level of mastery is expected. Well-written objectives can assist instructors in creating assessment questions by reminding you of the skills you want students to demonstrate.
Here’s my quick three step method to annotating your assigned objectives on your Elentra Learning Event page with your learning-event specific objectives:
- Start with writing your know or understand statements: what do you want learners to know or understand after your session?
- Think about what level of understanding you want students to demonstrate and how you would measure that (scan the verb chart for ideas)
- Write a declarative sentence of your expectation of students’ abilities following your session. In your draft, start it off with “The learner will”. For example: The learner will identify the bones of the hand on a reference diagram. Your objective would be: “Identify the bones of the hand on a reference diagram.”
As a fourth step, feel free to email your draft objectives to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for review and assistance (if needed). I’m happy to help.
Table excerpted from Washington Hospital Center, Office of Continuing Medical Education’s “Behavioral Verbs for Writing Objectives in the Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor Domains” (no date).
* The “Red Book” got its name because for the first edition (we’re now on the fourth), the card stock used for the cover was red. Over time, everyone started calling it the “Red Book”.
A version of this post was originally available in 2017… but writing learning objectives is an ongoing challenge for all!