One of the bedrock concepts of designing residential curricula and learning plans is the ability to write effective learning objectives. Writing effective and measurable learning objectives, however, is often more difficult than it may seem. The deeper one delves into learning theory and curricular design, the more nuanced one realizes these concepts are.
One of the first concepts professionals come across when learning to write objectives is the basic structure of an objective:
STEM + VERB + OBJECT
[Students will be able to] + [recall] + [strategies for managing their time]
The reason why this structure is of such critical importance in developing a curriculum is that the use of certain verbs, often drawn from Bloom’s Taxonomy, ensure that statements of learning will be specific and measurable. For example, using a more generic vague verb such as, “understand,” does not allow one to test for knowledge in the same way one can test if someone can “list” or “recall” knowledge.
When one delves into learning objectives more deeply, however, there is a lot more nuance to uncover regarding how these verbs can and should be deployed. The educators at the Iowa State University Center for Teaching Excellence put together an intuitive guide for understanding how objectives function in the learning process. The Center’s site also provides an interactive graphic and a number of additional resources.
As you can see from the graphics directly above and below, all learning outcome verbs are not created equal. There are multiple dimensions at work: (1) the Knowledge Dimension (what one knows… from concrete to the abstract) and (2) the Cognitive Process Dimension (thinking skills… or various order levels). This recognition comes from a revision to Benjamin Bloom‘s original concept. While these visuals present a hierarchy of orders of complexity, the reality may not be as neat and tidy as it may seem at first glance.
The final graphic from Iowa State University brings the two concepts together in a more easily understood whole. Looking at the Dimensions in a three-dimensional format allows one to more clearly see where the two overlap with one another and where the verbs map onto their intersections.
To better understand the two domains, pick either a row or a column below and examine the progression up the pyramid. For example, under the “Create” Cognitive Process Dimension, the verbs are:
- Generate (at the factual level)
- Assemble (at the conceptual level)
- Design (at the procedural level), and
- Create (at the meta-cognitive level).
Staying within the Factual Knowledge Dimension, the verbs are:
- List (Remember)
- Summarize (Understand)
- Respond (Apply)
- Select (Analyze)
- Check (Evaluate), and
- Generate (Create).
(You may also want to play with these concepts in the interactive 3D model version.)
There are also perspectives critical of Bloom. That the model, however modified, is too hierarchically minded, too linear. That it addresses only cognitive processes, not learning as a whole. That it is a “classification system and analytical tool” and not for objective creation. Dr. Lorin Anderson and Dr. David Krathwohl have been critical in examining how Bloom’s Taxonomy has been mis-used, mis-applied, and misinterpreted (find out more). Before delving into the intricacies of learning design, take a moment for a deeper dive into how Bloom can be helpful… and when it isn’t. (credit: Matthew Van Mater)
Above all, writing effective learning objectives for a curriculum requires intentionality. While understanding the structure of effective objectives is necessary, digging more deeply into learning processes and dimensions can yield more sophisticated, targeted, and cascading outcomes. Furthermore, when it comes to scaffolding and assessment, effective outcomes can be more accurately mapped and student learning can be more accurately measured through time.
A well reasoned residential curriculum evolves and becomes more sophisticated the more we, as educators, learn about learning.
- How are you training and developing staff to write effective learning objectives?
- How can you incorporate more sophisticated understandings of learning objectives into your curriculum?
- Can you effectively apply concepts of Knowledge and Cognitive Process complexity into your learning objectives?
References: Learning Objective visuals from the Iowa State University Center for Teaching Excellence. Full PDF here. Presented unedited under Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States