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.

Posted on