I am a fan of articulating learning objectives or expected learning outcomes. (They are outcomes once they’ve happened. Expected outcomes or objectives when you start.) Articulating clearly what you expect students to learn as a result of taking your course can benefit students. It makes it easier for them to decide whether your course meets their own learning needs. And it helps them understand why you are doing things the way you are doing them.
However, the real benefit of articulating learning objectives is in the effect it has on you. Let’s be clear. I’m not a fan of performance measurement and bureaucratic processes designed to evaluate your teaching for purposes that have very little to do with the people in front of you or with your workload and efficacy. Unfortunately, it is these processes that seem to have brought the concept to our attention. It is also those processes that frame whatever training you have been given in how to use them.
As I explain in Juggling 101: elements of a good plan, managing your workload involves picking priorities, setting boundaries, and having slack in your plan. Even if you do those things, your plans may go awry. One of the main reasons for that is the work related to teaching leaks out of the container you put it in. It can do that for a whole lot of reasons. Defining learning objectives is like picking priorities within the container labelled “teaching”. They enable you to take less time to plan (both the whole course and individual sessions) and help you adjust to unforeseen circumstances more quickly.
Make better decisions faster
Knowing what you want students to learn helps you make better decisions about what to include in the course. When you are putting together your syllabus you can get a clear sense of what is essential to reaching those outcomes, what would be helpful but you could work without if you need to, and what is really not necessary.
This focus can also help you strike the right balance between content and process. You will have received a lot of education about the content, or at least content in your specific area. The amount of education and training you’ve received about pedagogy varies. Some people get good training in this. Others get barely anything. You probably have a gremlin who frequently reminds you that you don’t know enough or are not up to date enough on the content. That gremlin doesn’t seem to care whether you are teaching PhD students or an introductory class for undergraduates. It certainly doesn’t think it’s possible for students to learn things you don’t know in detail.
If you clearly articulate the outcomes you hope to achieve, you can confidently judge how much subject knowledge you really need and then focus on what other kinds of preparation you might do to help your students learn what you want them to learn.
Manage your time and workload more effectively
You can also address the finite nature of time and energy by asking yourself
“If I only have x hours to prepare for this seminar, what is the most effective way to spend that time to meet these objectives?”
This will help you balance the time you spend on your various responsibilities. It may even allow you to move to a situation where you aren’t routinely working evenings and weekends and still not getting any research and writing done.
This question is particularly important if you’ve had to cancel a session (for illness, weather, or some other reason) or been unable to spend as much time as planned preparing because of some other urgent thing. The session may not be your best ever but using learning objectives to guide your emergency planning will make sure it is good enough.
Select appropriate methods of assessment
Once you know what learning outcomes you are looking for, it will be much easier to decide which assignments will enable you to determine whether students have achieved them. If you are strongly committed to (or required to use) a particular form of assessment (like an essay or term paper), consider what learning outcomes are embedded in that form and adjust the content of the course to make sure you are explicitly teaching students in ways that enable them to develop whatever academic skills that form of assessment requires.
You can also be clear with students about which outcomes you are assessing with which mode of assessment. I used to coordinate a course in which we assessed the content knowledge of one block of the course with an essay. That block then did not appear in the final exam, where we focused on other material. You could also decide that certain academic skills are only expected for A students, and provide an alternate assessment that enables those who are aiming for a B to demonstrate the achievement of other objectives. If students are clear about the consequences of their choice of option, and both options are clearly linked to specific learning objectives, then everyone knows what’s going on.
The relationship between your learning objectives and assessment of student learning will push you to think about levels of achievement and grades. No one expects all of your students to achieve exactly the same outcomes. Figuring out what the broad grade bands mean (whether thats A, B, C, D, fail; or I, IIi, IIii, III, pass, fail) in terms of learning outcomes demonstrated will enable you to be clearer with students about your expectations, and develop a useful rubric to guide the grading (for yourself or your Teaching Assistants; moderators and external examiners may also find this helpful). You should see benefits in terms of how long it takes you to grade, how confident you are with your grading, and how you respond to questions (or challenges) from students about the grades.
A New Taxonomy of Learning Goals by Elizabeth Barre provides a nuanced approach to the question of learning outcomes.
For an excellent example of how one professor used learning objectives (her’s, not necessarily the kind the bureaucrats would like) to revamp a course see Kim Solga’s Decolonizing the Syllabus, Part 2
How does teaching make you feel? is an older post addressing the tendency to focus on more preparation to address anxieties around teaching.