Friday, March 13, 2009

In the spring, an instructor's fancy lightly turns to...

...thoughts of the next semester.

Although many of you probably won't be teaching again until the Fall, I am starting to think about preparing my class for this summer, in addition to the two classes (one a new prep) that I will be teaching in the Fall semester. Getting ready to teach a course to a new group of students, even if it is one I've been teaching for almost a decade (!), is both exciting and overwhelming. I start to madly make lists of all the things I want to change, what worked and what didn't, what students said in their evaluations of the course...

Then I take a breath and think - "Okay, what are the objectives of this course?"

Well-defined course objectives always help me make those tough decisions about what material to include and what to cut (which can be hard, because there's so much neat stuff I'd like to talk about! And shouldn't my students have the benefit of my many years of experience all wrapped up into one semester?!). Then I can move on to creating learning objectives for each lesson. This helps me decide between all the different, exciting new activities I've learned about over the past year and want to try. After all, I could use the latest, greatest new technology or the most clever approach to group work ever and have it fall completely flat because I didn't think carefully enough about the purpose it was supposed to be serving. What was the objective here? What were students supposed to get out of this, and did they understand how playing tiddly winks related to cognitive development in early childhood, or did they just have fun?

The one thing that I always try to keep in mind when creating learning objectives is that in the end they aren't really my goals, they are what I'd like my students to be able to do once they leave my classroom. They should be manageable, measurable, and action-oriented.

By manageable, I mean that I need to be careful to identify only a few objectives that can be reasonably met within the lesson or over the course of the semester. For the course as a whole, I aim for 3-5 broader objectives. Within each lesson, I try not to have any more than 3 objectives, and even then it can be hard to really feel like students have covered more than one by the end of a 50-minute session. If I've done my job right, the lesson objectives over the course of the semester should "add up" to the broader course objectives come the end.

By measurable, I mean that I should be able to assess when students have met the objectives through exams, assignments, class discussion, etc. Hopefully, students will also be able to assess their own learning, by at least being able to judge what they do and do not know about the subject at hand. So objectives worded as "The students will appreciate..", or "This course will help you understand..." don't really lend themselves to measurement. They're not specific enough. What does the student have to do to demonstrate his appreciation, or her understanding?

This is why learning objectives should be action-oriented. This means that the student knows what they should be able to DO once the lesson or course is over. For example, one of the objectives of my current course is "Students should be able to apply developmental concepts to real-world examples." To meet this course objective, in class I ask them to do things like watch a Nanny 911 video and identify the parenting style and likely long-term outcomes for the kids, or after learning about the invincibility fallacy in adolescence, generate examples of behaviors they participated in as teens that demonstrate this concept. So my lesson objectives in these examples include "You will be able to identify parenting styles and discuss their likely outcomes" and "You will be able to define "invincibility fallacy" and generate examples that illustrate your definition."

Thanks to the use of these types of learning objectives, my students feel better prepared because they know what is expected of them - they are able to focus their reading or attention in class. On my recent mid-term evaluation, they said things like: "The course is really easy to follow.", "She provides very informative lectures and also does a good job in explaining key aspects of the lecture.", and "I also think that the opening slides "by the end of this class you should..." really help to set clear objectives...I feel that I have a really good grasp on the information and material".

Did you know?

CTLE recently gave a workshop on creating lesson plans and learning objectives. If you weren't able to attend, the video of the workshop will be available soon on our website.

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