Building your first MOOC? Start with great learning objectives

As an educator, you repeatedly ask yourself: what should my learners learn? Sometimes you have limited control. You’ll be handed a collection of topics or a textbook and told to teach the material. Other times you may have total control. For example, parents have incredible freedom with their children’s education. And if you’re building an online course, you get to choose your own topic and precisely how to cover it.

No matter what level of control you have over the subject matter, it’s important to have some clear and specific goals in mind when you’re creating educational experiences for people. If you don’t, your attention and your learners’ attention is likely to wander. Both your learning and there’s will be less deliberate and more chaotic.

Professional educators use learning objectives to marshal their thoughts and focus their creation of learning opportunities for their students. The simplest definition of a learning objective is obvious in the name: an objective one has when learning. But as with all education, the real value is in the specific details.

If you do a search on the phrase “learning objective,” you’re going to find a lot of partially overlapping definitions and sometimes contradictory ones. But you’ll also find general agreement on three requirements. Learning objectives should be actionable, measurable, and demonstrable.

Learning objectives are actionable.

Learning objectives should be actionable. They should include appropriate verbs that prompt learners to take action on a specific task.

Let’s study an example you might find in a textbook or you might think of when you’re designing a curriculum.

Students should understand the difference between constants and variables in a math equation.

Unfortunately, “understand” is not a very actionable word. While it is a verb, it’s not a very actionable verb. Imagine if we were in a life and death situation. Let’s say we were climbing a mountain together, and I yelled: “Understand the rope!” If we somehow survived, you’d probably push me off the cliff for not simply yelling: “Grab the rope!”

When we say something like “understand the difference between x and y” or worse yet, “understand topic z,” we’re basically confusing the entire learning experience. If we have an amazingly well trained student, they might say: “what specifically would you like me to understand about this topic z you’re referring to?” But we’re highly unlikely to have such deliberate and educationally self-aware students. It’s on us to do better. I’m going to refine this learning objective to be much more actionable.

Students identify and explain the difference between constants and variables in a math equation

OK can you see the difference? I replaced “understand” with “identify and explain.” I also got rid of the word “should” since it’s not really actionable and just clutters up our learning objective. Now you may be asking yourself, “Why bother? I know what I mean when I say understand.” Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t. Educators often use words and phrases like understand and learn about as ambiguous placeholders to get all the topics they want to cover down quickly. However, novice educators use this list as the final syllabus. Pros will dive in and refine each of the items in their list until they are actionable and tied to specific tasks. This helps them figure out what examples to use when explaining topics, and it also helps them stay focused on the actions they want their students to become capable of.

Learning objectives are measurable.

In addition to actionable, good learning objectives are measurable, meaning we can measure a learner’s progress as they act on the learning objective. In our working example there’s actionability in “identify and explain” but there’s not yet measurability. What should they be identifying? How much explanation do we want to see? I’m going to make another refinement now. You determine how my change affects the measurability of the learning objective.

So…

Students identify and explain the difference between constants and variables in a math equation

Becomes…

Students identify and explain the different mathematical operations that can be performed on constants, coefficients, and variables in a math equation.

I’ve added a specific distinction that I want my students to identify and explain. I want them to identify the mathematical operations that can be performed on constants and variables. Can you see how this affects the measurability of my learning objective? Now I can measure how many distinct mathematical operations my students identify, and I can measure whether or not they can explain those operations in the context of the elements they are grouping them with. I also added a third mathematical object to differentiate, called a coefficient. Working through this example, I remembered that there are more objects in the equation I want my students to be responsible for identifying and differentiating. This is another advantage to going through this process. In addition to specificity, your learning objective will gain a robustness and depth that helps you and your students learn more.

Learning objectives are demonstrable.

Similar to measurability, demonstrability helps educators determine when their students have completed learning objectives. It’s not always obvious when a student has achieved a learning objective enough to contextualize their learning and apply it effectively. So it’s helpful to state the demonstration you’d like to see from students in the learning objective itself. In my case, I want to see students use their knowledge about the mathematical operations they can perform to actually solve equations for the variables they find in them. So I’m going to make my learning objective more demonstrable.

Students identify and explain the different mathematical operations that can be performed on constants, coefficients, and variables, in order to solve mathematical equations for the variables they contain.

OK, this learning objective is pretty good. It meets all the requirements. It’s actionable with verbs like identify, explain, solve. It’s measurable with a bounded set of operations to identify and three objects to differentiate. It’s even demonstrable. I can come up with several equations for my students to demonstrate their learning by solving. If we stopped here, we’d be way better off than when we started. Do this for each of your learning objectives and your curriculum will be a lot more descriptive for your students and a lot more prescriptive for you.

But I don’t want to just write good learning objectives, I want to write great learning objectives. And to me, there’s one thing that distinguishes good from great. Good learning objectives tackle the “what” and the “how.” Great learning objectives also tackle the “why.”

There’s a reason we want our students to learn our subject matter. We want them to increase their expertise, we want them to become more powerful practitioners. We want them to not only perform like experts, we want them to think like experts. We want our students to approach the subject with the passion, the curiosity, and the skill that we do.

Some call it higher order thinking, I call it a perspective shift. A great learning objective hints at the approach to the task and the value inherent in that approach. If a good learning objective clearly articulates the hard skills we want our students to acquire, a great learning objective also prompts them to acquire the soft skills of our industry along the way.

Here’s how I’m going to take our working example from good to great:

I’m going to ask myself, what is it about solving equations for variables that’s so important? When I was teaching math, why did I ask my students to solve so many equations every year? Why do I want them to know the difference between a constant and a variable?

Solving for variables in math is actually one of the connections between the study of mathematics and any one of a thousand real-world applications. When I calculate what I can afford to spend on food each week, it’s a variable in my budget. My income is a constant. When I try to identify where an object like a soccer ball will end up after I apply a specific force over a given time, like the result of a kick, that position is a variable, gravitational acceleration is a coefficient. When I’m trying to balance a chemical reaction or make my Mom’s favorite soup, it’s all about getting the right coefficients so my ingredients can vary. Everywhere we look, there’s an opportunity to solve equations, and that is why we focus on getting good at it. It makes us more powerful and perceptive in the natural world.

Students seek out natural world problems, convert them into mathematical equations, and solve them by strategically performing the appropriate mathematical operations on the variables, constants, and coefficients.

I want to point out two things about this final refinement. The first is that it is larger in scope than the one I started with. Originally, I just wanted students to differentiate between constants and coefficients, now I want them to demonstrate their ability to do so by creating mathematical equations that model natural world problems and solving them. This change in scope is appropriate. You’ll find as you run your learning objectives through these steps that they scope up or down based on how you started. My original objective was too narrow. It would have been different if I started with one you might see in a job description like “applicant will have familiarity with Java.” Through the process of making this one actionable, measurable, and demonstrable, it would most certainly be scoped down from the broad topic of Java, the programming language, to some specific task that demonstrates what the employers are looking for.

The second thing I want to point out is the extensibility of this learning objective. I could use this with 12 year-olds learning pre-algebra as easily as I could with linear algebra students in college or even professional chemists, financial analysts, and musicians. This learning objective can be demonstrated over and over again in multiple contexts. It’s a practice that one maintains, rather than completes. And therefore it suggests one of the recurring pleasures of being mathematically minded. The seeking of naturally occurring problems, the modeling of those problems using equations, and the solving of those models, is one of the great joys of being mathematically empowered.

To me, great learning objectives train people not only to perform tasks, but to enjoy them. They don’t just get you the job, they help you learn to love it.

At Andela, we start with learning objectives for technology leaders and then map the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors required to complete them. If you’re interested in learning more about that process, share some of your learning objectives with me here, and I’ll select a few to use as examples in the next post.

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