Utilizing Learning Objectives to Promote Intentional Student Learning

Students come to college to learn. They anticipate that through engaging with their faculty in the classroom that they will gain new knowledge and skills, and that this process of attending classes, completing assignments, and performing well on exams will prepare them for their future career. While this may be generally true across institutions of higher learning, one thing that remains constant regardless of the discipline or pedagogy is that in order to be effective such learning needs to be intentionally crafted for student success. Faculty utilize research, resources, and a myriad of other knowledge to help them intentionally create learning inside their classroom. Similarly, those of us in outside of the classroom need to do the same.

Many functions of student affairs continue to re-create the same old programs year after year whether there is evidence that suggests that these programs and events have a positive impact on student learning or not. To improve, educators must intentionally create learning environments that link the in-and out-of-classroom learning experiences across their campuses. One way to do this is by clearly identifying learning objectives. The following post outlines how to identify, codify, enact, and assess student learning objectives in out-of-classroom contexts.

Start with the Mission

When writing effective and impactful learning objectives, it is imperative that we start with our mission statement, values, and educational priorities. These documents serve as a guide outlining what students should learn and how they can learn it. Learning objectives derived from these documents should provide clear measurable statements of this learning. These statements identify the skills and end results students should gain as a result of their participation in the university.

Utilize Student Development Theories

In addition to looking at the core documents that define your institutional mission, values, and priorities, research and theory can also help in understanding a student’s journey through college and how to tailor objectives to their unique needs. Learning objectives written with developmental theories in mind can help students move from one developmental place, stage, or vector, to another.

As an example, traditional first-year college students often struggle with managing their emotions online. Conversely, upper-class students might be challenged to find their purpose, or to become comfortable in their identity. Each student could benefit from different learning objectives—depending on the context, what the student’s needs are, and where the student is developmentally. By using theory to help shape your practice, you can also be intentional in helping students learn, grow and develop.

Be Precise in Your Word Choice

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful schema for helping educators write learning objectives with specificity and measurability. Bloom identified and ranked cognitive tasks from “low” to “high,” similarly mapping student development across how thinking and learning can evolve. When writing a learning objective, Bloom is a great place to start—ask yourself where your students are starting from along the taxonomy’s spectrum and where you hope they will end.

For example, I want my Living-Learning Community participants to be able to understand the academic resources available to them across our large campus. I may think of a program that will allow students to assess their own needs and introduce them to some resources. I then want students to comprehend what the resources are, and where to find them. My outcomes for this program to be:

  • Participants will be able to identify their academic support needs.
  • Participants will be able to list the resources available to them to enhance their academic success.
  • Participants will be able to describe the steps of how to book a tutoring appointment on-campus.
Bloom's Taxonomy Verbs
Source: Fractus Learning

Identify Assessment Measures

Writing a learning objective isn’t the only part of this process. Learning objectives need to be written in such a way that they can be measured and assessed. Assessment is how educators can know what was learned as a result of a student attending a program or engaging with a service. Assessment is a recognition that as educators, we must do our due diligence to ensure that learning is occurring, and diligently make changes or corrections if it is not.

Assessment shows the value of student affairs work and makes tangible what often may be seen as intangible. There are many ways to assess student learning after they engage in an event or activity. For example, one could develop a short (4-5 question) quiz that students complete after attending or engaging with a program or service. One could also modify this into a pre-test /post-test design to measure knowledge students possessed before the engagement, and what they learned as a result. These types of assessments should be tied to the identified learning outcomes for the activity and measure learning, not just student satisfaction or a self-report of learning.

Another way to assess a learning outcome is through a “one-minute paper.” A one-minute paper asks students to write down the answers to three questions: (1) What did you learn? (2) What will resonate with you after you leave? (3) What questions do you still have? Students are given one minute to answer these three questions (or a variation of them) and the answers are collected and reviewed. This provides real data to utilize, make changes to, or follow-up with going forward.

Once you’ve assessed your outcomes, it is important to review the data and implement change. Then, after executing it again, continue the cycle of assessment and improvement. Consider repeating the same assessment questions until you are confident that the learning you want to occur is indeed taking place. Assessment can be tedious, time consuming, frustrating but also highly motivating, and rewarding. It allows professionals to better advocate for resources and funding. Creating a culture around departmental and divisional assessment initiatives will produce great dividends that will positively impact the student experience and improve the quality of services provided to today’s learners.

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