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The Secret to Writing Better Learning Objectives

The Secret to Writing Better Learning Objectives

Writing learning objectives is a true art, one that many instructional designers and educators are actually terrible at. We all learn in our teacher education programs that our learning objectives should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-framed). But why do we so often fail to write objectives that meet this simple criteria? The trick I use when writing learning objectives is as simple as it is valuable.

I did my initial teacher training through Teach For America in a 5-week “Institute” (translation for the uninitiated: nightmare experience from Hell) that almost killed me, but - all jokes aside - also gave me a crash course in the skills I’d need to further develop once I had a classroom of my own. At Institute, we learned that learning objectives needed three things: a SWBAT, an action verb and a couple of nouns. That action verb was incredibly important. It determined so much about not just what you were teaching, but how you were assessing learning. We were introduced to good old Bloom’s Taxonomy, provided with verb lists, and sent on our merry way.

My first lesson plan was a mess, and my advisor reamed me out. She told me, “Whenever you’re writing a learning objective, ask yourself, “Could a learner stand up and [YOUR VERB HERE]?”

This piece of advice has stuck with me, and it really works. Asking yourself this question forces you to choose action verbs for your learning objectives, making them SMART almost automatically. Because after all, how are you going to measure something that can’t be demonstrated or “done” by a learner in one form or another?

Here’s an example:

Ask yourself, “Could a learner stand up and UNDERSTAND?” No. Understanding is invisble and subjective. How could you know if someone was “understanding” something? And what do we mean by “understanding”? What level of understanding is required for us to know the learner has met the objective?

Now ask yourself, “Could a learner stand up and describe? Summarize? Evaluate?” Yes, definitely! Moreover, these verbs give a clue as to how you might assess learning. Descriptions or summaries might come in the form of an essay or a presentation. An evaluation might take the form of an analysis, comparing/contrasting or debate.

This works for adult learners as well. Consider the following learning objectives. Which is SMART?

  • Through completing this training, participants will be able to feel connected to the broader CS teacher community.
  • Through completing this training, participants will be able to list ways in which they might connect with the broader CS teacher community.

As my daughter would say, "Easy Peesy Lemon Squeezy."

What are your tips and tricks for writing great learning objectives?

 

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