Tuesday, March 24, 2015

10 reasons: Why we need to kill boring ‘learning objectives’!

At the end of this course you will…  zzzzzzzzz…….
How to kill learning before it has even started. Imagine if every movie started with a list of objectives; “in this film you will watch the process of a ship sail from Southampton, witness the catastrophic effect of icebergs on shipping, witness death at sea but understand that romance will be provided to keep you engaged”. Imagine Abraham Lincoln listing his objectives before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Does anyone ever say, sorry, I thought this course was about something else, and walk out? Never.

1. Why do dull text on opening?
When dealing with learners who need to be motivated, excited and hooked, where attention matters, why prescribe a screenful of boring 'trainer' text as your starting point. This makes no sense, especially online, where first impressions really do matter.

2. Gagne misapplied
There’s always a villain and in this case it’s Gagne. To be fair this wasn't entirely his fault. ‘Stating the objectives’ was the second in his nine steps of instruction. Unfortunately few remember that the first step was ‘Gaining attention’ THEN ‘Stating objectives’. Most start by stating objectives putting the second step first. In any case, I have serious doubts about including the second step at all. Indeed, this nine-step approach, as I have previously stated, tends to produce formulaic, often uninspiring and over-long courses.

3. Over prescriptive
We know that people make very quick judgments of other people, often in a matter of seconds, and if you as a teacher/trainer are forced to do this prescriptive, unnatural act before you get a chance to put yourself across as an expert, practitioner and teacher, you will have got off to the worst possible start. To force teachers, trainers and lecturers to state learning objectives at the start of every session is to be over-prescriptive. It almost suggests a lack of critical thought and learning. You WILL learn this... come what may!

3. Teacher-Speak
Anyone who knows anything about speaking, writing for TV or film, designing web sites or games or any form of content that needs to keep an audience engaged, knows that immediate engagement matters. If those first impressions are a bureaucratic list of objectives, framed in teacher or training-speak, you’ll have set the wrong, dull tone. It is a behaviourist approach at odds with what we know about motivation, engagement and attention.

4. Attention killer
Arousal or attention is a necessray condition for learning. Arouse people at the start and they will remember more. Yet if the first experience many learners have is a detailed registration procedure followed by a dull list of learning objectives, attention is more likely to fall than rise. There is a strong argument for emotional engagement at the start of the learning experience, not a jargon-like list of objectives. Attention is a necessary condition for learning. To kill attention is to kill learning.

5. Little learning a dangerous thing
Even if this were a good practice, it is not easy and few have the experience to write objectives well. They end up being short and imprecise lists full of fuzzy terms such as ‘understand’, ‘know’, ‘learn’,  ‘be aware of’, ‘appreciate’ and so on. Writing a good objective in terms of actual performance, with the pre-requisite conditions (tools, conditions, presumptions), actual performance in terms of what the learners will know or be able to do and the measurable criterion such as time and so on, is not easy.

6. Time wasted
How much time is currently wasted by teachers and designers thinking about writing and delivering learning objectives. Even worse, how much learners’ time is wasted reading them. Even worse, how much attention and motivation is lost in learners by being made to sit through this bureaucratic stuff? My guess, especially if teachers, lecturers, instructors and trainers do this at the start of every lesson, lecture or module, that the waste is in the many, many millions.

7. Better to Top and tail
Rather than state learning objectives, we’d be much better focusing on productive techniques that focus on improved retention. For example, to ‘top and tail’ lectures, modules etc. so that reinforcement of learning takes place through spaced-practice. Remind people at the start of what they learned last time and at the end repeat - this form of reinforcement works.

9. Student signalling
One excuse is that learning objectives allow the student to see what they're in for and provides goals. Yet how many learners, read the objectives and say 'not for me, I'm out of here'? People on courses are there to stay. And if you really want to state goals, phrase those goals in terms or real goals personal to the learners - the exam, promotion, reputation. One could argue that it provides focus and much was made of one paper by Rothkopf in 1975. However, hard on its heels came Kibler 1976, Melton 1978, Lewis 1981, Hamilton 1986 and Ho 1985, who showed the downsides. Learning is cocomplex , sometimes attitudinal and rarely captured by often bad learning objectives.

10. Over-prescriptive behaviourism
It is important that teachers come across in a way that they feel comfortable with. Education and training has a habit of using theory, in this case 50-year-old theory, that simply refuses to budge and gets fossilized into prescriptive rules that constrict teaching and learning. The problem with this older theory is that it came when both the theorists and teacher-training world was dominated by behaviourism. It’s time we moved on.

Note that I’m not criticising the use of learning objectives or learning outcomes, as defined by Mager, in the design of courses. That is a skill and practice that is far too often absent in learning professionals. My arguments focus on boring learning objectives made explicit to learners at the start of a course. There is nothing wrong with bringing focus to learning but simply shoving a list up front does, in most cases, the opposite. In truth these are old behaviourist fossils, deeply rooted in the behaviourist era. We need to move on.


Clive Shepherd said...

With you there. The recitation of learning objectives is a classic example of how we squeeze every last drop of life out of a learning experience. Yes, design with objectives. Yes, make it clear why what you are doing will be useful to the learner. List the objectives, please no.

rus said...

Hi donald
i agree that stating them is tedious, prescriptive and 99% of the time, uneccessary.
they ae for the designer and deliverer not the learners unless someone actually asks 'why are we doing this'

Frances Bell said...

I always found it quite safe to post the module specification (containing learning outcomes ) on Blackboard as decreed by management. In the unlikely event a student would open the document they would definitely have nodded off at aims/objectives, long before they reached learning outcomes.

Donald Clark said...

Nice one Frances!

Gina Fredenburgh said...

They're more vague "teaching objectives" than learning objectives. I'll be sharing it with some colleagues who seem to live and breathe objectives and give no breath to engagement.

Educando El Genio said...

Brains remember beginnings and endings. Take that into account when planning your classes.
Attention normally falls after 10 minutes, so make sure you do something smart, unexpected but not threatening to let everybody rest every now and then. This short activity could be a joke, a song, or an activity with movement.

jay said...

Donald, I can go along with killing *boring objectives*. However, I also think we have to begin with the end in mind. If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.

Isn't in motivating to be told that at the end of this experience, you'll be able to do X, Y, and Z?

I'll continue to start with a concise statement of what we're here for. Otherwise, inattention blindness may set in, and I may not see the gorilla or get the point.

gallowhill fats said...

If learning objectives are useful for people designing courses, then they must also be useful for students taking the course.

True, many teachers are not good at writing learning objectives. (Even some examination boards can't do this.) This can be reflected in their teaching and the alignment of teaching and assessment.

The learning objectives help ensure that what the students end up learning is what the teacher intends them to learn.

By all means, hide them away at the start if they are going to ruin your on-with-the-motley, but they have to get them and the sooner the better.

Donald Clark said...

Hi I think the inference from useful for course design to useful for learners is wrong. Most of what I successfully learn is mercifully free from the statement of objectives, which, in many cases would limit my reach. Learners need never be xposed to this 'teacher-speak'. They are not a necessary condition for learning.