Articulating Effective Learning Goals

“When instructors do not clearly articulate their goals, it is difficult for students to know what (or how) to practice.” Susan Ambrose in How Learning Works

As teachers and students enter final exam or benchmark season it’s important to remember a key concept in assessment creation: articulating effective learning goals. These goals, also called objectives, help inform students about what they are supposed to do when they encounter a task. In the book How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors explain the importance of using learning objectives to help students have success in class. Objectives can appear in curriculum documents, with project instructions when handed out to students, or in a rubric that is given to students before they begin work on an assessment. “Learning objectives,” explain the authors, “articulate the knowledge and skills you want students to acquire by the end of the course or after completing a particular assignment.” There are numerous advantages to using clearly articulated learning objectives with students:

  1. Communicate intent to students
  2. Provide a framework for organizing course content
  3. Help guide decisions about appropriate teaching and learning activities

Numerous studies have shown that the use of objectives can positively impact student learning. One study from the 1970s found that students who were given specific goals when they were learning from a text paid more attention to passages that were relevant to their goals and hence learned those passages better as they read. Another study conducted a few years ago found that creating a rubric and sharing it with students before they work on an assignment led to better outcomes in terms of the quality of work produced and in the students’ knowledge of the qualities associated with good work (Ambrose et al. 128-130).

An old friend named Benjamin Bloom can help educators create learning objectives through the action verbs contained in his taxonomy. For example, a sample end-of-course learning objective for a dance class shared in How Learning Works could ask students to “execute different choreographic styles” or in an engineering class it could ask students to “analyze simple circuits that include resistors and capacitors.” Bloom’s taxonomy was created in the 1950s and represents six levels of intellectual behavior organized from low-level to high. Action verbs developed by Bloom can help educators create learning objectives that focus on concrete actions and behaviors. “Furthermore,” the authors in How Learning Works explain, “using action verbs reduces ambiguity in what it means to ‘understand.'”

Here is a chart of sample verbs from How Learning Works using Bloom’s Taxonomy:

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Another proponent of using clearly articulated learning goals with students was Grant Wiggins, who passed away a few days ago from a heart condition. In fact, identifying goals is the first step in Wiggins’s theory of curriculum development. I was shocked when I saw a tweet from his daughter sharing the sad news. Wiggins had such a profound impact on my life as an educator with the theory of backward planning he set forth in his book Understanding by Design. However, it was through his blog “Granted, and…” that I felt like I really got to know Wiggins and his philosophy. His blog was a must read for me. In fact, over the past couple of years, I considered his blog the most important resource for educators on the web. His clear prose and ability to publish thought-provoking blog posts every week was inspirational. He was an intellectual leader and champion for good teaching. He will obviously be missed. So, in honor of Wiggins, take a look at a recent assignment given to students. Were you clear in what you expected students to do? In other words, did your instructions to students contain clearly-articulated learning goals (and yes, a rubric really is just a collection of these) that explained what you wanted them to learn?

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