Sunday, February 8, 2009

Determing the essential learning objectives for a course

Recently, I've had to do some thinking about how to design and facilitate effective accelerated courses. We are implementing an accelerated format -- Maymester -- over a three-week period of time between the spring and summer terms. This is a popular approach at many institutions, allowing students to take another 3-credit hour course before leaving for summer break (or, for those year-round students, it gives them a way to take 6 credits between mid-May and the end of July).

Those who have taught an accelerated course already know the challenges, such as determining how much preparation (including reading) students can realistically accomplish between Wednesday and Thursday; how to address both formative and summative assessment needs that require quick turn-around to be useful; how to structure daily 3-1/2 hour class sessions that are engaging; and how to thoroughly cover all of course content. There is certainly a lot to consider to ensure that the quality of an accelerated course is high.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the challenges, I have found that a close examination of the course learning objectives to be a useful starting place. The point of reexamining them is to make sure you are focusing on the essential learning objectives as you develop the accelerated course. For example, in looking at a course I typically teach during a 15-week semester, I saw that I had included a mixture of both essential and nice-to-have learning objectives. For the accelerated format, I want to focus on the essential learning objectives, and make sure I am developing learning activities and assessments that map to those objectives.

How am I defining essential? The essential learning objectives are those that, if not reached by students, would negatively influence students’ (a) abilities to continue on in the program (or with the next course/s); (b) professional preparation, including abilities to do well on professional exams and certifications; and (c) confidence and efficacy as university students and emerging professionals. In other words, the essential learning objectives are those that make-or-break the course.

To help my colleagues and I determine the essential learning objectives for an accelerated course (or any course for that matter), I came up with a few prompts:
  1. What should students be able to do as a result of this course that they cannot do now?

  2. How do you want students to be changed as a result of this course?

  3. For this course, what are the culminating performances of learning and achievement (e.g., the highest stage of development; performances that are significant, critical)?

  4. What learning objective(s) have the most positive influence on students’ ability to be professionally and/or academically successful?

  5. What learning objective(s), if not achieved by the students, would cause you to see the course as having failed?

  6. What is the single, most important takeaway from this course?

These prompts may not be useful to everyone developing an accelerated course, but I have found it a helpful starting place in my own process.

[Note: On a related theme, please see my post on the Problems of Practice (PoP) approach to course/training design.]