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Category Archives: Learning Goals and Objectives
The year was 1997. During a graduate school take-home exam in abstract algebra, one of my fellow students emailed the questions to AskDrMath.com and received answers before the exam was due.
Fast forward to 2005. One of my international graduate students showed me a website hosted in his home country (in a language not based on the Roman alphabet, therefore not easily searched by most westerners). Students post homework, exams, and solutions for many North American universities, indexed by class and professor.
I was happy to see that the Wall Street Journal wrote about these issues in their 9-April-2009 article “Do Study Sites Make the Grade?” by A.M. Chaker, pp. D1-D2.  If you aren’t aware, online study sites give students access to homeworks and exams posted by hundreds of thousands of registered users. They are the old sorority/fraternity files in the Internet age. According to the article, solutions to 225 textbooks are also now on the web. Furthermore, students post and answer questions from fellow users around the globe.
Several decades ago, when my dissertation advisor told me to “spice up” my writing, I realized that the better my prose became, the more I moved away from the facts–what I saw as “the truth.” Whereas I knew for a fact that “in March 1347, the papal treasury paid five silver pounds for fur hats for the pope’s eight singers*,” I didn’t really know if this was a “benevolent gesture by the supreme Pontiff.” But since I needed to please three readers, something that was always in the back of my mind, I suppose it ultimately didn’t hurt to insert gratuitous phrases periodically into what otherwise amounted to a 500-page spreadsheet.
As I’ve moved along in my teaching, I ask myself, “What is it that these students should know? What do they care about? What can bring them closer to the music and to the historical period?” At this point, I can honestly say that some of the information I now convey to my students is . . . uh . . . less than factual. At best, I suppose, it can pass as historical speculation. I’ve moved far away from factual detail in my lectures to a gray area of broad generalization and rhapsodic rambling.
Is it important that Mozart wrote a certain number of operas, or is it better that students know that he and his Italian librettist (Lorenzo da Ponte) were Masonic proto-revolutionaries? Should we call Mozart a “lofty genius” or rather think of him more as a musical Rainman with a touch of dyslexia perhaps and a smidgen of ADHD, as a contemporary scientific account alludes? When covering the 19th century, I want my students to think of Robert Schumann struggling with bi-polar disorder (and/or was it with his symptoms of late-stage syphilis?). I offer the class Schubert’s hypothetical pedophilia as explanation of a 17-year-old’s sensitive setting of “Erlking.”
There is certainly some evidence for these notions, but what do we really know? We really know dates for events and numbers of compositions, however, this is not the substance of a lecture; these facts are not worthy of study at anything but the graduate level. This is not history. All the trashy little tidbits that I spew paint a broader picture of Enlightenment and Romantic ideals. I want my students to identify with these historical figures as real people perhaps with lives similar to their own. Or so what if I have to sketch out characters as olde timey pop stars whose every move would today be covered by ET (Entertainment Tonight)? So, over time, I’ve moved away from a fastidious accuracy that marked my youthful scholarship. The broad sweep, the hyperbolic–that’s what works for me in the classroom. The factual details have become for me the dust of history.
*I just made this up, btw. This is becoming very easy to do.
This summer, two of my colleagues became the subject of a YouTube viral video. Maybe you heard about the swearing, pants-dropping debate coaches (well, only one dropped his drawers) videotaped (with their consent) at the national cross-examination debate tournament… It was quite a spectacle. Since then, the video has been taken down, the debate association has issued a statement, the mooner was fired (purportedly, for years of questionable conduct) and the other young coach sanctioned by her University. YouTube consumers have moved on to fresher fodder. Yet, as midterms approach, new “angry professor” videos are likely to surface – momentary catharsis for undergrads trapped in fill-in-the-blank purgatory. No college is immune from this new virus…
VIRAL VIDEOS ARE A NEW FORM OF FALLOUT
Though colleges have had to manage external criticism in the past, the viral video phenomenon is a different beast. Consider the issues our campus faced a couple of years ago with the fresh(wo)man text War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning…(New York Sun article: “Baruch Requires Students Read Book Some Are Labeling Anti-Semitic“).
Though the issue received prominent attention in the print press, the back-and-forth was short-lived, the college had time to craft a response (i.e., freedom of speech), and the exchange was largely print-based. The story reached thousands – not millions. The story lacked compelling oral and visual content (e.g., yelling, crying – mooning). It paled in comparison to the storm surrounding the viral debate video (e.g., print and television stories, a rumored Chronicle investigation, a 100% funding cut for one program and potentially related cuts at other colleges). Comparatively, the War controversy was tame. Importantly, it did not result in financial fallout…
OUTSIDER OPINION AFFECTS THE BOTTOM LINE (AND POOR STUDENTS)
College costs are rising, tax levy and financial aid moneys are in flux, and increasingly we need donor/investor money to bridge the gaps. Their money enables poor, working, and middle class students to enjoy the privilege of post-secondary education (aside: thank you for subsidizing my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. Ohio/national taxpayers!) If they respond to controversy by curtailing their support, students can be deprived of programs, perspectives, professors… To the extent that most students cannot afford the “true” costs of their schooling (i.e., a 100% tuition-funded institution…), we have to consider/manage how their underwriters perceive our campus. Viral video makes us more vulnerable… financially and intellectually…
When I attended the Zicklin Business School Summer Teaching Seminar in 2007 (and again this year), the first thing I noticed was that the terms “learning goals” and “learning objectives” are used interchangeably. This seems to be the case throughout much of the College. From my training and experience in strategic management and following the approaches of Robert Mager, the behavioral psychologist known for his books on instructional design – to me, goals and objectives are two different things, although connected. I strongly believe that to write better learning objectives, we need to define these terms and use them more precisely and consistently across the Baruch College community.
A well-written goal simply states an outcome or end result to be achieved. In other words, where do we want to go? While goals should be specific, they are often phrased in broader terms that need to be operationally defined (called “fuzzies” by Robert Mager). Now that we know where we want to go, how do we get there? This is where objectives come in. They should be specific and measurable and state what must be done to achieve the goal. In the case of learning objectives, they should be phrased from students’ perspective, not teachers’.
From an instructional design perspective, learning objectives have three purposes:
- Serve as a guide in designing a course
- Communicate to students what they are expected to achieve
- Assist in evaluating instruction
I found a good article summarizing Robert Mager’s approach to writing learning objectives: “How to Write Great Learning Objectives.” I don’t adhere to Robert Mager’s approach as a strict formula to follow, especially when it comes to less tangible subjects – instead I use his approach as a guideline in writing more specific and therefore clearer learning objectives. I have found his approach in writing learning objectives very useful in guiding and improving instruction. The place for us to start, though, is clearly defining learning goals and objectives and using these terms consistently.