Random Thoughts on Instructional Design
What you want students to be able to accomplish upon completing your course serves as the guiding principle for designing course activities, selecting information to present, and devising appropriate assessment strategies. On a larger scale, the goals and objectives of individual courses feed into the objectives of an entire program, ultimately defining the skills and capabilities of a well-rounded graduate.
Without clearly stated goals and objectives, many students believe that their primary learning task is to guess what their professor wants them to know. If they guess wrong, they may end up resenting the professor for being unreasonably demanding, tricky, or obscure. As the expert the professor knows exactly what s/he expected the students to learn, and as such may dismiss those who guessed wrong as unmotivated or unprepared.
The end of each term affords professors the opportunity to evaluate the students accomplishments, and review the course goals and instructional objectives with an eye to rewriting them to make them clearer and more learning-centered for next term.
Evaluating a student’s understanding is not easy, and even the student may have trouble knowing if s/he understands a concept. Some students may think they understand if they merely memorize a definition, term or concept; however, the instructor’s actual expectation is that the student be able to engage with the content in more depth. Clearly defined course objectives take the guesswork out of matching the professor’s expectations with the students’ performance.
Course objectives are specific, measurable statements describing the expected actions or behaviors of the student as they relate to knowledge acquisition, understanding, and application or performance upon course completion. Effective course objectives:
For the instructor, course objectives guide the course structure, content organization, and assessments. For students objectives focus them on the important learning goals. For those outside of the class they demonstrate what the course is all about.
An instructor may devise several instructional objectives depending on the number of key topics addressed in the course. Well-formulated instructional objectives are more than just an advance warning system for students. They can make teaching more focused and precise. Objectives can help instructors:
A set of objectives prepared by an experienced instructor can be invaluable to new instructors teaching a course for the first time. They can help instructors of subsequent courses in a series know what they should expect their students to have learned previously. If objectives are assembled for every course in a curriculum, a departmental review committee can easily identify both unwanted duplication and gaps in topical coverage and the collected set makes a very impressive display for accreditation review. Well-designed instructional objectives also make the process of outcomes assessment smoother and more comprehensive.
Objectives generally consist of three parts: (1) a statement of the expected student behavior — what the student should know, do or value, (2) the conditions under which the student performance takes place — should state what cues, aids, variables the student will or will not be provided with, (3) the criteria for student performance that is expected (e.g., using a taxonomy).
The statement, “Write a short article suitable for publication.”, can be confusing to students because it does adequately define the conditions and criteria. The objective, when rewritten to include the conditions and criteria is now easier for the student to comprehend and for the instructor to assess. Example: “Given a topic and a 5” column layout (condition), the Biomedical Writing student will write a short article suitable for professional publication (behavior). This means the article will have the correct number of words, grammar, and syntax and will be coherent (criteria).”
Objectives that express student accomplishment as knowing or understanding an idea or concept can lead to confusion. For example, the objective “Students will know the valences of chemical elements.” is less specific and more difficult to measure than the more specific “Given a list of 35 chemical elements (condition), the student must be able to recall and write the valences (behavior) of at least 30 (criteria).”
In writing objectives, ambiguity can be avoided by eliminating the use of non-specific and subjective verbs like know, understand, appreciate, grasp the significance of, believe, or internalize. See Tables 1 and 2 for phrases/verbs to avoid when writing objectives.
|Table 1: Phrases to Avoid*|
|To become —
|Evidence of a(n) —
|* The phrases in this table are rather vague and are commonly misunderstood whenused in course objective statements.|
|Table 2: Weak Verbs to Avoid|
When devising objectives think of what the students will be expected to DO to demonstrate their knowledge or understanding, and make those activities the instructional objectives for a particular course topic. This can be accomplished by incorporating specific action verbs to describe desired outcomes. See Table 3 for suggested action verbs to use when writing objectives. The more specific the task, the more likely it is that the students will be able to complete it.
An example objective in a Pharmacology course might be “Given the names and pictures of four prescription drugs (condition), the second-year medical student will identify orally (behavior) which drug is appropriate for the treatment of high blood pressure in patients with no other health problems (criteria).” In this example identify is a verb intended to demonstrate understanding through comprehension and application.
|Table 3: Cognitive Objective Verbs|
Unfortunately, formulating detailed objectives for a course or learning event, is not nearly as easy as simply listing the course topics in the syllabus. The effort of reformatting the course or instructional objectives as described in this posting, however, is certainly worthwhile. Many instructors who re-formulate objectives for a course, even one they have taught for years, find themselves with a course that is more enjoyable to teach, interesting and more challenging for the students.
Angelo, T., Cross, K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Freed, J., Huba, M. (2000). Learner-centered assessment on college campuses. Shifting the focus from teaching to learning. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Maki, P. (2004). Assessing for learning. Building a sustainable commitment across the institution. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Middle States Commission on Higher Education. (2003). Student learning assessment. Options and resources. Philadelphia, PA: Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Voorhees, R. (2001). Measuring what matters. Competency-Based learning models in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.