Developing Objectives & How to Measure Them
What you want students to be able to accomplish upon completing your course serves as the guiding principle for designing course activities, selecting information to present, and devising appropriate assessment strategies. On a larger scale, the goals and objectives of individual courses feed into the objectives of an entire program, ultimately defining the skills and capabilities of a well-rounded graduate.
Without clearly stated goals and objectives, many students believe that their primary learning task is to guess what their professor wants them to know. If they guess wrong, they may end up resenting the professor for being unreasonably demanding, tricky, or obscure. As the expert the professor knows exactly what s/he expected the students to learn, and as such may dismiss those who guessed wrong as unmotivated or unprepared.
The end of each term affords professors the opportunity to evaluate the students accomplishments, and review the course goals and instructional objectives with an eye to rewriting them to make them clearer and more learning-centered for next term.
Course and Instructional Objectives
Evaluating a student’s understanding is not easy, and even the student may have trouble knowing if s/he understands a concept. Some students may think they understand if they merely memorize a definition, term or concept; however, the instructor’s actual expectation is that the student be able to engage with the content in more depth. Clearly defined course objectives take the guesswork out of matching the professor’s expectations with the students’ performance.
Course objectives are specific, measurable statements describing the expected actions or behaviors of the student as they relate to knowledge acquisition, understanding, and application or performance upon course completion. Effective course objectives:
- are student-centered rather than professor-centered
- focus on the learning that results from mastering an activity rather than on the activity itself
- align at the course, academic program, and institutional level
- concentrate on important, non-trivial aspects of learning
- address skills and abilities central to the discipline and based on standards of excellence
- capture important learning through generalized statements that are clear and specific enough to be measurable
- focus on aspects of learning that will develop and endure but that can be assessed to some degree in the present
For the instructor, course objectives guide the course structure, content organization, and assessments. For students objectives focus them on the important learning goals. For those outside of the class they demonstrate what the course is all about.
An instructor may devise several instructional objectives depending on the number of key topics addressed in the course. Well-formulated instructional objectives are more than just an advance warning system for students. They can make teaching more focused and precise. Objectives can help instructors:
- prepare lecture and assignment schedules
- identify and possibly delete course material that the students can do little with but memorize and repeat
- facilitate construction of in-class activities, out-of-class assignments, and exams.
A set of objectives prepared by an experienced instructor can be invaluable to new instructors teaching a course for the first time. They can help instructors of subsequent courses in a series know what they should expect their students to have learned previously. If objectives are assembled for every course in a curriculum, a departmental review committee can easily identify both unwanted duplication and gaps in topical coverage and the collected set makes a very impressive display for accreditation review. Well-designed instructional objectives also make the process of outcomes assessment smoother and more comprehensive.
Components of Meaningful Objectives
Objectives generally consist of three parts: (1) a statement of the expected student behavior-- what the student should know, do or value, (2) the conditions under which the student performance takes place -- should state what cues, aids, variables the student will or will not be provided with, (3) the criteria for student performance that is expected (e.g., using a taxonomy).
The statement, “Write a short article suitable for publication.”, can be confusing to students because it does adequately define the conditions and criteria. The objective, when rewritten to include the conditions and criteria is now easier for the student to comprehend and for the instructor to assess. Example: “Given a topic and a 5” column layout (condition), the Biomedical Writing student will write a short article suitable for professional publication (behavior). This means the article will have the correct number of words, grammar, and syntax and will be coherent (criteria).”
Objectives that express student accomplishment as knowing or understanding an idea or concept can lead to confusion. For example, the objective “Students will know the valences of chemical elements.” is less specific and more difficult to measure than the more specific “Given a list of 35 chemical elements (condition), the student must be able to recall and write the valences (behavior) of at least 30 (criteria).”
In writing objectives, ambiguity can be avoided by eliminating the use of non-specific and subjective verbs like know, understand, appreciate, grasp the significance of, believe, or internalize. See Tables 1 and 2 for phrases/verbs to avoid when writing objectives.
|Table 1: Phrases to Avoid*|
|To become --
|Evidence of a(n) --
|* The phrases in this table are rather vague and are commonly misunderstood when used in course objective statements.|
|Table 2: Weak Verbs to Avoid|
Aim for Clarity
When devising objectives think of what the students will be expected to DO to demonstrate their knowledge or understanding, and make those activities the instructional objectives for a particular course topic. This can be accomplished by incorporating specific action verbs to describe desired outcomes. See Table 3 for suggested action verbs to use when writing objectives. The more specific the task, the more likely it is that the students will be able to complete it.
An example objective in a Pharmacology course might be “Given the names and pictures of four prescription drugs (condition), the second-year medical student will identify orally (behavior) which drug is appropriate for the treatment of high blood pressure in patients with no other health problems (criteria).” In this example identify is a verb intended to demonstrate understanding through comprehension and application.
|Table 3: Cognitive Objective Verbs|
Unfortunately, formulating detailed objectives for a course or learning event, is not nearly as easy as simply listing the course topics in the syllabus. The effort of reformatting the course or instructional objectives as described in this posting, however, is certainly worthwhile. Many instructors who re-formulate objectives for a course, even one they have taught for years, find themselves with a course that is more enjoyable to teach, interesting and more challenging for the students.
Recommendations for Helping Students to Set and Achieve Goals
Although there is ample evidence that setting challenging goals has a number of positive outcomes, do keep in mind that not all students come to your class with a desire to be challenged. As faculty, we must find ways to not only develop challenging learning environments for our students, but to create learning environments whereby students set goals that challenge themselves.
There are a few things you can do in your course to inspire students to set and to achieve challenging goals. A primary factor is to demonstrate to the students the importance of the subject matter covered in the course. Everyone is more willing to work longer and harder when there is value to the task to be completed. There are many ways to show the direct application of the material in the class:
- problem-based learning,
- application problems,
- web quests, or
- service- learning projects.
Find a way to show students that the material learned can be used to directly help individuals or to solve pervasive issues in society.
A second way to inspire students to set challenging goals is to have them assist you on the first day of class in developing the course syllabus. One of our Women's and Gender Studies faculty posted a syllabus with gender bias language to a course wiki and had student teams work on redesigning the syllabus and revising the narrative. This activity did a number of things for the class: 1) started them working in groups from the first class session; 2) assisted all class members in developing a comprehensive understanding of class goals and objectives; 3) provided a low risk project using the wiki tool that would also be used for a higher risk final project. During the revision process the students also negotiated the number of examinations, the days of examinations, scope of the team project, and other aspects of the course. The course adjustments allowed the instructor to maintain standards, while creating a syllabus and course that students were more invested in because they helped to create it and assisted in setting course goals and assessment measures. Student "ownership" of the goals will result in more consistent effort and better performance.
Make students accountable for their work and display it for external audiences. For example, if students know that their final projects will be published on the web, they will challenge themselves to complete more extensive projects (Chickering & Ehrman, 1996). In order to realize success, students need to have prompt and informative feedback as they complete their projects. It is also important that students develop an understanding or awareness of their own level of performance. Metacognition, or knowing what one knows, is an important skill for students to develop in meeting challenging goals. Evidence suggests that when students are taught to develop improved metacognitive skills, they are more likely to meet goals and achievement improves (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).
A final method to inspire students to set challenging goals is to have them contract for grades. Grade contracts have been reported to reduce the anxiety level of the student by having them focus on tasks, instead of worrying about specific grades on specific assignments. Research has demonstrated that grade contracting results in enhanced student learning and will often result in students setting challenging goals in the course by contracting for a high grade at the beginning of the semester (Dougherty, 1997). Overall, your "goal" is to help students to understand the importance of the content of your course and then to design methods to help them to meet challenging goals. It is well accepted that expectations of high levels of work will result in higher level of work. This turns into a wonderful self- fulfilling prophecy when challenging goals are encouraged, supported, and realized.
In any area of goal setting, determining the extent to which the goals have been accomplished is essential. This not only justifies the rationale for setting goals, but also demonstrates to the students the learning realized by setting and achieving challenging goals. The easiest way to assess the value of setting goals is to document when goals have been accomplished. For this, it is important to state goals in ways that are specific and measurable. Another way to assess the impact of setting challenging goals is to look at work turned in with this method, versus methods in the past where goals were not set. Compare final projects with projects completed in the same course the previous year. Finally, you could use any of a number of classroom assessment techniques to determine whether setting challenging goals results in deeper learning or more critical thinking: focused listing, minute paper, concept maps, and directed paraphrasing , etc.. Learning is facilitated when individuals set reasonable, yet challenging goals, and then are supported in reaching those goals.
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