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Learner Centered Learning Outcomes

by Mark Ferrer

We have spoken in other sections of your need to check with your Dean and/or Department Chair concerning college-defined objectives for your course. Some institutions state that course learning outcomes -- what students will be able to do upon completion of the course-- must remain the same no matter who teaches the course. If that is the case, then your academic freedom means you decide how you’ll help students achieve those outcomes. You will decide the enabling objectives [some institutions use the phrase “enabling objectives” to mean those things students learn to do along the way toward reaching learning outcomes]. Teachers should identify and order these objectives as part of the course planning process. In any case, your best first step as you plan the course is to determine what students will be able to do upon successful completion of the course.

Here are some general guidelines for the wording, organization, and tone to use as you craft objectives (adapted from Columbia College’s website):

  • Goals and objectives should be stated as student outcomes (“The student will…”, or “You will be able to …”).
  • They may be organized according to the units of the course; if appropriate, include projects and options.
  • They should correspond to the professional standards of the discipline and work environment the student is preparing to enter.

Describe your learning objectives using active verbs that indicate what students will need to do as the semester progresses. For example, in a course on history, one instructor told students they would acquire the "basic skills used by historians," which included the ability to:

  • critically analyze primary documents
  • identify an author's thesis and evaluate how well it is supported
  • write a logical and coherent argument of your own.

The tone of a learning-centered syllabus should be informal and accessible. Personally, I recommend the phrase “you will be able to . . .” instead of “the student will be able to . . .”. One other consideration is the decision to use “will” or “should.” Check with your institution; in this litigious society, some educational institutions have decided that objectives should be stated as, “You should be able to . . .” because using “will” implies successful accomplishment merely due to attendance.

We refer many times to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Visit the following website to help clarify how to define and phrase objectives so that you are requiring students to work at the higher levels of the Taxonomy: . The authors provide active verbs related to each of the levels in the Taxonomy. It is clear that “cite,” “list,” and “pronounce” verbs associated with Bloom’s Knowledge level differ markedly from “diagram,” “integrate,” and “assess” verbs characteristic of Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.

“Integrating” as an activity clearly requires students to do something with the material. “List,” on the other hand, requires only successful memorization and ability to say or write what has been memorized. Use the following table to locate your objectives on Bloom’s scale. The level of demand on students' abilities to think critically, solve problems, make connections rises as the chart moves from knowledge (lowest demand) up to evaluation (highest demand). Keeping the level required to complete your objective commensurate with your students’ readiness to accomplish it means that you have set realistic, positive objectives -- ones that will result in success rather than frustration and loss of engagement.

There is no bad or good level in Bloom’s Taxonomy, but there is appropriate vs. inappropriate. Knowledge-level learning activity and assessment are quite appropriate at the right times. For instance, learning the names of the parts of the digestive system and listing them on a test may be the right task at the right place in your physiology course. A student who missed this step might be forced into an inappropriate phrase in a real-world scenario. Assure that students know the basic vocabulary by employing a Knowledge-Level activity before moving to assignments that require students to do something with that knowledge.

It is important to give students the right challenge at the appropriate moment. If you ask too little, they lose interest. If you ask too much, they hit overload and can’t process the information or complete the task. One way to set the cognitive load of a learning task is to select the verbs appropriate to student readiness. Choose the verbs from the list below that match what students are ready to do with the learning task you want to assign. For example, using the verb “name” (as in, “Name the parts of the digestive system”), means the cognitive load required of students will be lower than if the verb, “determine” (as in, “Determine potential causes for the peptic ulcer given the patient’s medical history”) is used. You want to manage the flow state to maintain momentum in the learning process:

chart of flow state used to illustrate complexity of the process

The higher levels in Bloom correspond to higher levels of cognitive load. Students have to be skilled and prepared to handle demands made of them at the higher levels. Staged preparation, scaffolding, incremental familiarization, and graduated practice make the move upward possible. Abrupt shifts and inconsistent levels within an assignment or presentation will leave most students stranded. (For more see Tests and Testing in Module Seven).

Knowledge-Remembering previously learned materials

cite

label

name

reproduce

define

list

quote

pronounce

identify

match

recite

state


Comprehension-ability to grasp the meaning of material. Answers: who? what? when? where?

alter

discover

manage

relate

change

explain

rephrase

substitute

convert

give examples

represent

summarize

depict

give main idea

restate

translate

describe

illustrate

reword

vary

interpret

paraphrase

tell why

express


Application
-ability to use learned material in new and concrete situations

apply

discover

manage

relate

classify

employ

predict

show

compute

evidence

prepare

solve

demonstrate

manifest

present

utilize

direct

     


Analysis
-ability to break down material into its component parts. Answers: how many? which? what is?

ascertain

diagnose

distinguish

outline

analyze

diagram

divide

point out

associate

differentiate

examine

reduce

conclude

discriminate

find

separate

designate

dissect

infer

determine


Synthesis
-ablity to put parts together to form a new whole. Answers why?

combine

devise

originate

revise

compile

expand

plan

rewrite

compose

extend

pose

synthesize

conceive

generalize

propose

theorize

create

integrate

project

write

design

invent

rearrange

 

develop

modify

   

Evaluation-ability to judge the value of material for a given purpose. Answers how can we improve? what would happen if? 

appraise

conclude

critique

judge

assess

contrast

deduce

weigh

compare

criticize

evaluate

 

 

The importance of keeping Bloom in mind as you create/define your learning objectives for the course and unit is clear. The added benefit is that our process of syllabus-making/course planning and its order of activities help you:

    1. determine objectives in terms of student-doing
    2. create assessments to measure achievement of objectives
    3. create assignments and activities to facilitate student achievement of objectives.

Working in this way guides you constantly along the learning-centered path. Planning the order of the steps keeps your focus on student learning and not solely on the presentation of material:

“. . . one reason students do not learn may be related to the failure of many faculty to consider, articulate, and specify their expectations and objectives. Outcomes assessment forces academics to become student-centered.”

from Successful College Teaching by Baiocco & DeWaters, p. 158

 

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