Good teaching matters, pt. 2: Learning Objectives

In the last two columns, Good Teaching Matters:  Five Teaching Practices to Improve the Quality of a Training Course, and Good Teaching Matters:  Know Your Students, we started looking at the processes of designing and delivering quality instruction.  However, of all the processes we will discuss, learning objectives are probably the cornerstone of educational quality from an instructional design perspective. Here is a little background about them.


Love them or loathe them, learning objectives are a staple of the education world and are likely here to stay.  While learning, or behavioral, objectives have been applauded for their usefulness and impact when designing and delivering instruction, they have also been much maligned and often misunderstood.

In the last two columns, Good Teaching Matters:  Five Teaching Practices to Improve the Quality of a Training Course, and Good Teaching Matters:  Know Your Students, we started looking at the processes of designing and delivering quality instruction.  However, of all the processes we will discuss, learning objectives are probably the cornerstone of educational quality from an instructional design perspective. Objectives were based on the notion that standards or competencies could and should be specified for education and training goals. These standards could then be use to design tests to give to students to determine whether or not they reached the competency.

All objectives have at least three components:

  • Conditions:  the circumstances (e.g., the situation, resources) under which the student will be TESTED
  • Action or Behavior:  the competency that the student must achieve
  • Criteria:  how proficient the learner must be in the competency

Some objectives add a fourth component, the audience, which specifies who will be performing the action or behavior.

Here is an example:  Given the specifications for a PV system, a site survey, and a series of 20 questions about a PV installation (conditions), each student (audience) will make correct installation decisions (action or behavior) by answering 19 of the 20 questions correctly (criteria).

Now, let’s take a look at this example and determine two things:  first, can we use the objective to design a test or assessment?  Second, would that assessment allow us to determine whether or not the student(s) are competent to make installation decisions.

How would you answer the first question:  can we use the learning objective to design a test or assessment?  You are correct if you answered yes. We want students to apply their skills and knowledge by figuring out the answers to the questions just as they would if they were performing an actual installation.

And how would you answer the second question:  can we use the test/assessment to determine whether or not the student(s) are competent to make installation decisions?  This question is a little trickier to answer.  If you answered, it depends, you are correct!  But upon what does it depend?  It depends on what your goals for the course and who your learners are. If you are training a technician to assist an installer, this test/assessment might be a very good guide to determine if the technician is competent.  However, if you are training installers, this objective probably needs to reflect an installer’s job performance.

Learning objectives are used for many other purposes than just designing assessments; i.e., to guide the instructional process and to guide students.  However, here are the two key things you should remember about objectives:

1) Their purpose is to define how learners will be assessed so that you, the educator, can determine whether or not students have met pre-established competencies and goals. In order to do this, objectives must be both measurable and observable; and

2) Objectives should be written so that you can judge whether or not students’ who have mastered the competencies can perform a particular job or task after the training or education program has been completed.

Since objectives and assessment are the flip sides of the same coin, we will take up testing and assessment in the next column.  In the meantime, take a look at the objectives you have written and evaluate them.

Next:  Include Practice and Feedback in the Training

Dr. Barbara Martin, a former professor in the College of Education at the University of Central Florida and at Kent State University in educational technology and educational psychology, specializes in instructional design (ISD), criterion-referenced testing, evaluation strategies, distance education, and instructional theory. She’s written numerous articles on ISD and educational technology, including a book on designing instruction for affective behaviors.

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