Singing the praises of learning objectives

This past Sunday afternoon, I had the pleasure of attending the Kingston Symphony’s matinee performance of Gene Kelly: A Life in Music at the Grand Theatre.  The show featured clips from Kelly’s most memorable performances, with live musical accompaniment by the symphony, under the direction of Evan Mitchell.

Throughout the show, Kelly’s wife and biographer, Patricia Ward Kelly, shared anecdotes and Kelly’s own insights into his choreography and performances.

She talked about the work he put into creating dances, painstakingly writing out the choreography plan, before working with his fellow performers to perfect the dances themselves. “He didn’t just show up and wiggle around on the stage,” she said.

My educational developer lens instantly compared this to the framework provided by well-written learning objectives. Objectives focus teaching and learning plans, and contribute to authentic assessment.

Yes, this is another blog about learning objectives.

In the abstract, learning objectives seem like just another box on a checklist or hoop to jump through.  Used the way intended, however, they are signposts that guide learning and teaching plans effectively—whether for a class or a single person—the same way Kelly’s planning delivered award-winning and inspiring choreography.

Yes, there’s a “gold standard” for writing objectives (that I’ve written about previously here). And there are verbs to use—and ones to avoid—and if it doesn’t come naturally to you to think this way, it can be pretty tedious.

What it’s really about is planning: knowing what you’re setting out to do. If you have an objective—a goal—then you can make your plan and communicate it to others effectively.

Well-crafted objectives also make things great for assessment, because it’s very clear what you have to measure at the end of the lesson, course, or program.

If you say, “I’m going to get better at taking patient histories” – what does that mean? What does “better” look like? If it means, “I’m going to note down details, or I’m going to ask specific questions, or I’m going to listen more than I have been, or interrupt less… then you know what you need to work on. You know what the focus needs to be, whether you’re a learner or a teacher.

Eventually, you’ll be able to do a history without thinking things through so deliberately – once you’ve achieved fluidity in that skill.  But before it’s a habit, you need to plan, your checklist, and I’m hitting all the boxes? Not just: “be better”.

For example, one of my plans in 2018 was to read more books that weren’t medical education and weren’t related to my PhD coursework. “Read more for fun.” That was it. My objective was pretty vague and, as a result, I didn’t create a workable plan. “Read more” didn’t get me very far. I read parts of eight non-work-related and non-course-related books. And three of those were cookbooks.

I set a more specific objective for 2019 that I would read more by spending five minutes every morning before I left for work reading something from my “recreational” “to be read” book stack (mountain).

I’ve finished two books, which is already a 200% improvement over last year. That specificity can make a difference.

And that’s really all objectives are: an outcome statement to focus your plan.

And that’s why we focus highlight objectives in our competency framework. It’s why we map things to them—learning events, assessments, EPAs—so we can be consistent and everybody knows what the plan is.

How much detail do you need in your objectives? This depends on how granularly you need to communicate your goals in order to be effective.

For his iconic Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly had to map out the location of each of the puddles. His plan needed to be that detailed to get it right.

If you’re wrestling with learning objectives and how these relate to your teaching, give me a call.

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Residency Match Day 2019: What our students are experiencing, and how to help them get through it

If life were a roller coaster, our fourth year students have, for the past few months, been on quite a wild ride, slowly rumbling upward, gradually ascending to the summit, stopping for a moment as they stare downward to a distant, small landing point, readying themselves for a rapid and rather scary descent.

The process by which learners transition from undergraduate to postgraduate medical education has evolved into a rather jarring and extremely stressful experience (don’t get me started – a subject for another blog/rant). It has required them to not simply consider what specialties are best suited to their interests and skills, but engage an application process that requires strategic selection of elective experiences, preparation of voluminous documents, meeting multiple deadlines (twelve, no less), and commitment of personal time and expense to travel and interviewing which, for many, spans the country in the midst of the Canadian winter.

This year, the roller coaster reaches its summit at 12:00 noon on February 26th. The much anticipated Residency “Match Day” is when all fourth year medical students in Canada learn which postgraduate program they will be entering. By approximately 12:00:05 that day, all students will know their fate.  As you can imagine, there will be much anticipation and anxiety leading up to the release.  For most (hopefully all), the roller coaster ride will end with the exhilaration and satisfaction of having successfully overcome the process. For a few (and hopefully none), it will bring a realization that their efforts to date have not been successful, that their ride is not yet over, and they have to begin again. They will be profoundly disappointed, they will be afraid, they will be confused. They will need the understanding and help of the faculty who are currently supervising their training, and much help from our Student Affairs staff.    

This year, we are again prepared to provide all necessary supports, but there are a few changes to the process which I’d like to clarify for both students and the faculty that will be supervising them that day:

  • Unlike previous years, our Undergraduate Office will not automatically receive match results the day before the full release. However, students have the option of directing CaRMS to release their results the day before (February 25th) if they fail to match. They can do so by going into the CaRMS website and providing the appropriate permission.
  • Any unmatched students who have allowed early release will be contacted directly by myself to notify them of the result. This is for three purposes:
    • to arrange for immediate release from clinical duties
    • to allow the student some time to prepare for the release moment the following day when most of their classmates will be hearing positive results
    • to arrange for the student to meet our student counselors who will provide personal support and begin the process for re-application through the second iteration of the residency match. 
  • Unmatched students who did not opt to provide early release will similarly be contacted and offered the same support and services after we get their results on match day.
  • Because we may not have full information in advance, we have decided to release all students from clinical obligations beginning noon on match day, until the following morning.

I’d also like to remind all faculty supervising our fourth year students on or around match day to anticipate that your student will be distracted. Please ensure your student is able to review the results at noon. If you sense he or she is disappointed with the result, please be advised that the student counselors and myself are standing by that day to help any student deal with the situation and provide support.

Fortunately, we have an outstanding Student Affairs team which has been working hard to guide the students through the career exploration and match process, and will be standing by to provide support for match day and beyond.


Dr. Renee Fitzpatrick Assistant Dean, Student Affairs rf6@queensu.ca

Dr. Erin Beattie, Careers Counselor, ebeattie@queensu.ca
Dr. Josh Lakoff Career Counselor, jml7@queensu.ca
Dr. Mike McMullen, Careers Counselor, Michael.mcmullen@kingstonhsc.ca
Erin Meyer, Assistant to Directors, Student Affairs
Lynne Ozanne, Assistant to Directors, Student Affairs

The team can be accessed through our Student Affairs office learnerwellness@queensu.ca, or 613-533-6000 x78451. 

Thanks for your consideration, and please feel free to get in touch with myself or any of the Student Affairs Team if you have questions or concerns about Match Day or beyond.

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