Why do we use learning objectives? An analogy

Why do we use learning objectives? An analogy

It seems like there has been a lot of discussion in the last few months about learning objectives --- and a surprisingly large amount of pushback against learning objectives. For example, Jeff Noonan argues extensively here against learning outcomes with the central argument being that learning outcomes (objectives) reduce learning to a transaction. He's not the first person to make this kind of argument. When I first came across Jeff's article earlier this year, my mind boggled, because to me it seems self-evident that learning objectives are good for learning. After all, how can you hit a target that hasn't been clearly defined except through blind luck?

But it turns out that learning objectives are not an objective good (pardon the pun). There is some research[1] suggesting that learning objectives attached to a lesson can cause an "expertise reversal effect" in which advanced students --- who might learn better through free exploration of a topic --- end up learning less because they aim for the learning objectives instead of a deep understanding of the topic. Also, I have had more than one person mention to me that learning objectives crowd out the opportunities for the free exploration of ideas that naturally occurs in the give-and-take of a good class.

In flipped learning, which is what my forthcoming book is about, learning objectives play a very large role in organizing the pre-class experience for students and the lesson planning process for instructors. So I found myself needing to come to terms with the idea that there might be something to the criticisms about learning outcomes. Below is an excerpt from a portion of the book that I wrote in which I try to address this. Enjoy, and let me know how off-base I am in the comments.

Q: I feel like learning objectives are too confining, and I want some space for students to explore and go off-script. Do I really need to have learning objectives that are this specific?

A: It's absolutely true that some of the best learning experiences we and our students experience are those that are unplanned and off-script, the result of serendipity and teachable moments that happen without warning. Learning objectives can be written in a way that makes them confining, and the resulting intellectual claustrophobia can turn memorable opportunities for learning into a dreary process of ticking off boxes from a checklist. Nobody wants a class to turn into this. At the same time, a course or lesson that is completely unconstrained runs the risk of being an unproductive free-for-all, especially for the most novice learners in our courses, who (as the research mentioned earlier shows) need guidance to learn. Where does one strike the balance?

Here is an analogy that might be useful. I live in Michigan and enjoy hiking the many forest and beach trails that are nearby. All of these have trails, and all the trails have occasional trail markers. The purpose of the trail is both to guide me along the path that the creators of the park felt offered the maximum amount of enjoyment (the best views, the most challenging hill climbs, etc.) and to prevent me from straying into areas that need to remain apart from human activity (sensitive lakeshore dunes, etc.). The purpose of the trail markers is both to tell me where the trail is, and to differentiate one trail from others. Sometimes it's fun to stray off the trail and go "into the wild"; but in order to do this, I have to know where I can do it without damaging the environment, and I have to know where the main trail is once I'm done, so that I can complete the hike without getting lost.

Imagine a hiking trail that has meter-high guardrails on each side of the trail and day-glow orange signs every five meters telling you, possibly in angry fonts, that this is the trail and you are not supposed to get off of it. That level of micromanagement of my hiking experience would render the entire enterprise thoroughly unenjoyable. At the same time, having no trail or an insufficient number of markers makes the hiking experience suboptimal, because I don't necessarily know where I am going, and even if I am familiar with the area, if I stray off the trail too much I might miss the breathtaking views that the trail was designed to show me.

The courses we teach are like the trails, and the learning objectives are the markers along the trail. We take care to design our courses (our trails) so that they show our students (the hikers) all the best things about what we are teaching (the "place" where we are "hiking"). The learning objectives are in place to serve as a guide to direct students to the path that offers the maximum amount of fun, challenge, and learning. While it's sometimes OK to deviate from a lesson, the learning objectives are there to help us decide where and when this is OK --- because it's not always OK! --- and where to get back on track once the diversion is over.

Carrying this analogy a step further: If courses are trails and learning objectives trail markers, that would make instructors the trail guides who lead groups of hikers, checking to make sure that each person is OK and proceeding well along the trail and offering perspective on what each hiker is experiencing. (And this is all we can do; we can't hike the trail for them.) But if the hikers have a guide, what need is there for trail markers? Well, there's no need at all, provided that the guide plans on being there for every hike that takes place in the future. But of course, that's an absurd idea; what we really intend is for hikers to not need human guides at all but rather be able to pick up and go hiking when they want, and follow a trail intelligently so that they can have a great experience on their own, without us in the picture. Hence, we need learning objectives in our lessons because we won't always be there in the future for our students; we want them to be able to navigate learning experiences without a human guide --- even to set up their own "trail markers" in a future learning process --- and still have a great experience.

So, don't think of learning objectives as constraints or scripts but rather as guideposts that provide guidance and direction through the lessons that we teach.

  1. For example: Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The Expertise Reversal Effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 23–31. http://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801_4 ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.