Focus on the Student: How to Use Learning Objectives to Improve Learning

The idea is simple but revolutionary: learning objectives put the focus on the student and learning rather than the teacher and teaching methods.

If information architecture is a fairly new field, then the practice of teaching information architecture is even newer. Often instructors are experienced information architects who have little to no teacher training, and they must teach students with a wide range of experience and learning goals. Learning objectives are one tool that can make information architecture courses easier for teachers and more rewarding for students.

In IA terminology, learning objectives are the equivalent of a project’s goals. They are statements that describe what the student should be able to do after participating in the learning activity. A learning activity can be anything from a course or workshop to an article.

The idea is simple but revolutionary: learning objectives put the focus on the student and learning rather than the teacher and teaching methods.

The easiest way to illustrate the benefits of learning objectives is to see them in action. Let’s begin with some learning objectives for this article. As a result of reading this article you should be able to:

  • Define learning objectives
  • Describe at least three ways learning objectives can help you and your students
  • Create learning objectives for your course that convey intended learning outcomes
  • Select criteria to assess your objectives both before and after teaching

Why use learning objectives?
An informal survey of information architecture syllabi indicates most teachers use topics and goals. Topics and goals are good starting points but well-formed learning objectives go a step beyond and offer several advantages for both the instructor and students.

Let’s try creating learning objectives based on a few typical class topics in an introductory information architecture course:

Topics

Learning objectives

Content mapping & inventory

Make a content inventory for an existing site

•  Describe situations when a content inventory is an appropriate tool

Diagramming & schematics

Pick a software tool for creating IA documents

•  List uses and limits

Create a site map for an existing site

Create an annotated wireframe

Discuss documentation needs of a production team (designer, developer, project manager, and business lead)

While useful, a topic list doesn’t make clear what students should come away with at the end of the class. They could be required only to know the terms and be able to identify different types of documents. The learning objectives indicate that the students will need to understand concepts, produce documents in given circumstances, discuss how to use the documents, and articulate the needs of their team. These objectives touch on many levels of learning.

Imagine picking a class format and assignments using only the topic list. Now try the same thing using only the learning objectives. By stating a measurable outcome (e.g., make a content inventory for an existing site), the learning objective gives you more direction on what you need to teach than the topic alone (content inventory).

In this way, learning objectives also make both your assessment of student performance and student self-assessment easier. Since learning objectives state a performance goal, you can more easily develop a method for assessing that performance. Again let’s use the sample learning objective “Make a content inventory for an existing site” and its secondary objective, “Describe situations when a content inventory is an appropriate tool.” These clearly state what skills the student must demonstrate.

As the teacher, you must determine how the student can best demonstrate his or her abilities, whether through a group or individual exercise, in-class or take-home test, or another method. The learning objectives can make this choice easier as they require you to have done the thinking up front about the skills your students need to show. Learning objectives also allow students to participate as active, independent learners. Because students are clearly told what they should be able to do, they can assess their own progress and concentrate on their weaker skills. This is especially important for professional students who are looking to gain specific skills and knowledge.

After developing a set of learning objectives, you can see how the objectives relate and build upon each other. It is then easy to see which information and skills should be taught first. For example, in this article, the learning objective “Create learning objectives” is a competency you need before you are able to assess your objectives. Later, we’ll see how taxonomies can help you organize learning objectives to build from simpler to more complex thinking.

Using conditions and criteria
Conditions and criteria of performance can help focus learning objectives. A condition tells how the task will be performed and a criterion tells how well. Conditions and criteria are often too limiting when teaching at the post-secondary level, but they can be useful in certain situations. For example, in the objective “Describe five types of usability testing,” the condition is five. This objective could be more generally stated as “Describe usability testing methods;” the condition adds clarity, which in some cases can help the instructor and students assess whether the objective is being achieved.

The level of specificity of your learning objectives can vary depending on what is most useful for you and for your students. Depending on the environment, your objectives may need to align with competencies, degree requirements, or the school’s philosophy.

Helpful Verbs

Define, list, identify, recall, describe, diagram, draw, discuss, explain, analyze, compare, predict, relate, critique, examine, debate, interpret, illustrate, recognize, propose, design, formulate, construct, create, estimate, revise, assess, summarize

Be careful using these verbs: appreciate, understand, know, realize, see. Check your use by asking yourself how you would know if a student had mastered the objective. It’s hard to judge whether someone understands a concept; what you can judge is how they show understanding by performing an action.

Making learning objectives useful
Once you’ve created a list of objectives, you need to verify their usefulness. The following questions can help keep your learning objectives based in reality:

  • What should the students learn?
  • What’s worth learning?
  • What can these students learn within this class format?

You can ask these questions another way:

  • What should be taught?
  • What’s worth teaching?
  • What can you teach these students in this class format?

Learning objectives will help keep you focused on what you can and should teach.

There are no rules for wording, length, or number of learning objectives, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Base your objectives on the course’s level (introductory to advanced), length (workshop to semester), and breadth (overview to specific topic).
  • Try to create objectives that are action-oriented and start with a verb.
  • Keep in mind that the goal of learning objectives is to list the key competencies; as such, it’s not necessary to have an objective for every skill.

Taxonomies (the educational kind)
The learning objectives for this article focus on cognitive (thinking) abilities. The most commonly used taxonomy for cognitive abilities was developed by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in 1956 and updated in the late 1990s. The six-level taxonomy is based on hierarchies of thought processes. Each level requires more complex thought than the one before it while also incorporating the levels prior to it. The levels, from lowest to highest, are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

According to Bloom’s taxonomy, in the beginning you introduce general concepts and specific skills. You then verify that students can recall information and understand its meaning. Later, you explain how the concepts and skills interrelate so that students are able to create more independently and think more abstractly. Finally, you verify that students can apply the knowledge in concrete situations, break the information down into component parts, apply the knowledge in a new way, and judge the value of the information. (There are many resources online and in print that explain these levels in more detail; “Further Resources” includes a few introductory ones.)

Taxonomies can be useful in getting ideas for the types of learning objectives to consider and in checking the completeness of a set of objectives. You can look at each level of Bloom’s taxonomy and make sure your students move from simply recalling information to creating their own ideas.

Let’s look at the learning objectives for this article to see how they move from general to more abstract. The first objective is “Define learning objectives.” This involves knowledge and comprehension, the lowest two levels of the taxonomy. The information that leads to knowledge and comprehension is given directly in the article.

The next three learning objectives (listed below) require you to apply the information to your own problem, corresponding to higher levels of the taxonomy.

  • Describe at least three ways learning objectives can help you and your students
  • Create learning objectives for your course that convey intended learning outcomes
  • Select criteria to assess your objectives both before and after teaching

At this stage, according to Bloom’s taxonomy, you are expected to apply the article’s information to your own situation and judge its effectiveness. You will also synthesize information from this article with skills and knowledge you already have in order to form a new result (i.e., your previous teaching experience combined with what you learned here).

You may also find affective (attitude) or psychomotor (physical) learning objectives useful. Affective objectives are concerned with the student’s interest in, attitudes toward, and appreciation of a subject; they are used less in higher-level classes and are more appropriate where trying is as important as succeeding. Psychomotor skills, such as projecting voice, may also have a place in your class.

Wrap up
Keep these tips in mind when creating learning objectives:

  • Start each objective with a verb.
  • Focus on the outcome and not the process. State what the student will be able to do, not what you will teach or how it will be taught.
  • Include objectives at all appropriate levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • Verify that the objectives are obtainable for your students.

In the end, your judgment as a teacher and experienced IA will be the final arbiter of learning objectives’ usefulness.

Additional Resources

  • The University of Victoria maintains a good overview of Bloom’s taxonomy with sample verbs.

    http://www.coun.uvic.ca/learn/program/hndouts/bloom.html
  • Astin, Alexander W., et. al. 9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning

    http://www.aahe.org/principl.htm
  • Gronlund, Norman E. How to Write and Use Instructional Objectives. Merrill, 2000.
  • Gronlund, Norman E. Writing Instructional Objectives for Teaching and Assessment. Merrill, 2004.

Wendy Cown’s favorite use of IA is in the education environment,
particularly in making the sciences accessible. She is currently helping
faculty at Columbia University achieve learning objectives through the
use of technology. An IA for seven years, Wendy has worked with
corporate, non-profit, and educational clients and always enjoys seeing a
site go live.

Posted in Learning From Others, Professionalism, Workplace and Career | 2 Comments »

2 Comments

  • Michael

    May 30, 2004 at 9:28 pm

    One thing that often isn’t incorporated into teaching (well everywhere that I’ve been educated) is a consistent emphasis on the student progress. A lot of teachers simply fire information at you in a way that best suits them without giving much thought into the consequences.

    As you say, the idea of learning objectives is simple but revolutionary.

    This having been said, perhaps it would be worthwhile having regular assessment and a means of comparing performance against objectives.

    It makes the teacher end of the bargain appear more useful than them simply standing up and feeding you information. Obviously there is only so much ‘babying’ that can be done on their behalf, but I think incorporating something following the method just discussed isn’t asking too much!

    A big challenge (sadly) in school is realising the deficiencies in the methods of teaching, seeing past them and ‘playing the game’. We all handle that in different ways. It would be nice however to not have so much to see past.

  • Wendy Cown

    June 3, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Hi Michael, I agree that a sound assessment method is also an integral part of successful education. Objectives should be regularly checked against student assessment as a way to keep them based in reality.

    It’s a good sign if there’s a range of student results, with the majority succeeding. But if a large portion of students are having trouble meeting the objective goals or, alternatively, if the majority are surpassing them very quickly then it’s a sign that the objectives need adjusting to meet your students’ learning needs.

    In my mind, it’s very similar to testing a website to make sure the users can meet their goals.

    Thanks for your comments,
    Wendy

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