Learning ObjectivesAs I have gained experience teaching over the years, my approach to planning a class has changed several times. Like many new professors, I planned my first courses according to how many chapters in a textbook I thought I should cover. One chapter per week, two midterm exams, and a cumulative final. An approach like this will get you by if you are passionate about the topic and deliver entertaining lectures and stay engaged with the students. This approach did get me by for quite some time. Eventually, though, I gave in to a mounting realization that course preparations like these lacked a sense of unified purpose.
Enter the age (or my personal phase) of objective based learning, and my course preparations improved significantly. I began taking the approach of first deciding what I wanted students to learn, then designing a comprehensive course structure to achieve these learning objectives. I was no longer a prisoner to teaching content from a textbook, I was no longer restricted to the role of "deliverer of knowledge". I was free to marshal whatever resources and techniques were useful and appropriate to help students achieve the learning objectives I selected. Each syllabus I wrote would begin with a statement of the learning objectives for that course, and the language for these statements is probably familiar to most. "At the end of this course, students will be able to..." To my students' credit, at the end of the course almost all of them had achieved whatever learning objectives I had set forth at the beginning of the semester.
There is an important qualification to be recognized here - the thread that began the unraveling of my satisfaction with these plans. I was teaching and assessing what students could do at the end of the course. This raises a very important question: after students have demonstrated what they knew or could do at the end of the course, just how long did those skills or that knowledge persist? Is students' performance at the time of the final exam really the objective of my teaching? How much of that performance lasts even past the first beer that they drink at the pub once they leave the final examination, or turn in their final lab report, or present their final project? I am no longer sure that teaching toward the goal of student performance at the end of the course is the approach I want to take.
Equally unsettling is what I discovered when I began giving pretests to students at the beginning of my classes. These pretests covered important topics that were learning objectives for prerequisite courses students were required to have passed before taking my class. Based on admittedly small samples, a clear trend was present: very little correlation existed between student's grades in prerequisite classes and their retention of that material as little as one semester later. When we teach for what students will be able to do "at the end of this course," such an outcome is almost predetermined.
What about this: defining learning objectives for a class in terms of what I want students to remember one year from now? (For a moment, set aside the legitimate concerns about how we could ever assess performance one year after a course ends). How would learning objectives in this context change the way I approach teaching a class? How should we change the content, structures, and strategies of our classes if we are teaching for long-term retention of skills and knowledge? I have a few ideas and I am implementing them in my new class this semester - topics to be addressed in my next post.