Learning Objectives – Do they really work?

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One of the core foundations of creating or revising a course is to establish a set of learning objectives which clearly define what a student should know or be able to do by the end of a course. So, where is the evidence that this approach actually works?  Simon and Taylor (2009) set out to explore the impact that learning objectives (or course-specific learning goals) had on student learning  in three classes where the instructor had integrated objectives intentionally throughout their course.  Nearly all students agreed that learning objectives were very valuable and helped them approach their learning more effectively.  Specifically, they were seen to guide and direct students in “knowing what they need to know” (p.55).   Students valued the organization and structure established by these objectives, “which allowed them to organize the information more effectively and be more expertlike ”  (p.55).  They appreciated that instructors where explicit and direct in the topics, skills and concepts that were of most importance.  Students in this study stated that these objectives helped to focus and guide their attention in lecture. As one of the most common struggles I hear from instructors is maintaining student attention during the lecture, setting clearly defined learning objective seems like a relatively simple strategy to implement to address this concern!

The course instructors felt that clearly defined learning objectives, improved communication in terms of what was covered/most important in the course, not only with students taking the course, but with other instructors.  This unanticipated outcome was seen as highly valuable when aligning a structured sequence of courses in the curriculum.  The instructors also felt that the objectives improved their assessment practices and helped them in preparing exam questions.   Specifically, they helped to ensure that there was alignment between their objectives with their assessment measures. Noted one instructor, “Your exam writes itself…I can check to see if each question addresses a learning goal and if it doesn’t I will throw it out” (p.56).

There is no question that learning objectives help to provide organization and structure to course design and implementation.  From this study, we can also conclude 3 primary benefits of course learning objectives:

1) they help to guide and enhance student learning

2) they improve communication between students and other instructors

3) they improve assessment practices.

Simon, B. and Taylor, J. (2009) What is the value of course-specific learning goals? Journal of College Science Teaching. Nov/Dec: 53-57.