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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When your objective is to write learning objectives…

Several times over the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with course directors and instructors about writing learning objectives.

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 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?

Frequently the response is:

  •  “I want them to know….”
  •  “I want them to understand….”
  •  “I want them 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 our students 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 students 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).

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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 MEdTech Learning Event page with your learning-event specific objectives:

  1. Start with writing your know or understand statements: what do you want learners to know or understand after your session?
  2. Think about what level of understanding you want students to demonstrate and how you would measure that (scan the verb chart for ideas)
  3. 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 theresa.suart@queensu.ca 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”.

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