Why Learning Objectives Matter for Online Students

Why Learning Objectives Matter for Online Students

Take a look at any syllabus and you will likely find a list of objectives for the course. Students often glance at the list without consideration of what those objectives mean to them because this isn’t a topic of discussion within most online classes. The fact is that learning objectives are considered a component of the course design that’s usually developed by someone other than the instructor, so the relationship between the objectives and students is never fully explored.

However, it should be explored. Learning objectives are the foundation for development of a course. They become an overall purpose statement and lead to the development of learning activities that support your progress as student. When learning objectives are written, they often begin with an action word, which specifies a behavior or something you must demonstrate. For example, the objectives often begin with words such as define, evaluate, appraise, identify, examine, assess, determine, diagnose, or evaluate. These statements create something observable or measurable that your instructor can use to assess your work or to review your performance in class.

Both traditional and online school curriculum include a set of learning objectives that determines the scope of the course and guides the development of course content and assessments. The objectives are especially significant for an online class because instructors utilize it to measure the only visible performance indicator they have available – the students’ work products. Within a traditional classroom, an instructor can observe his or her students’ performance and participation in the learning activities. However, an online instructor can only evaluate his or her students’ progress through written assignments and postings. In this way, the learning objectives become a guide for instructors and students, establishing expected performance outcomes.
Learning objectives are also called competencies because it refers to an expectation of knowledge acquisition or mastery of the course content, along with skill set development. The use of objectives serves to establish accountability for both instructors and students. Instructors are accountable for providing resources and utilizing instructional techniques that reinforce learning. Students are accountable for their work product and for demonstrating progress made towards meeting the objectives.

There are three levels of objectives that are utilized when a course is designed, including affective, psychomotor, and cognitive objectives. Only one of these types is implemented with the design of an online class.

1. Affective Learning Objectives

Affective learning objectives are established to measure students’ engagement in the class and their motivation to learn. It includes personal aspects, such as the students’ response to learning, their feelings, and their level of motivation and engagement in the class. These are considered soft skills and they are not easy to assess in the online classroom environment because the instructor is unable to view these qualities.

2. Psychomotor Learning Objectives

Psychomotor learning objectives are designed to assess physical skill sets and commonly written for hands-on classes, such as a physical education or music class. It is another set of skills that cannot be easily assessed in the online classroom because of the nature of distance learning and the subjects that are generally taught online.

3. Cognitive Learning Objectives

Cognitive learning objectives are based upon intellectual skills and typically follow Bloom’s Taxonomy, which provides a list of cognitive abilities. This is the primary type of learning objective developed for online classes because all student work submitted is in a written format, allowing instructors to measure the level of intellect or cognition utilized when a paper is written or a discussion board message is posted. It also adds a level of quality to students’ work because it requires students to do more than complete an assignment— they must also create a substantial work product.

Cognitive skills are also known as critical thinking skills, and when cognitive objectives are written, there will be action words used that are related to the levels of cognition – knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. As an example, a learning objective may indicate that students are to analyze an issue related to the course subject, develop a solution, and evaluate the possible outcomes. If students address all of these criteria, they have demonstrated completion of the objective, mastery of the course content, and strong intellectual development.

Once you become aware of the importance of these learning objectives, you can utilize them as your goals for the course. An effective method of monitoring your progress is to develop a goal action plan and establish checkpoints to measure your progress. To personalize the objectives, you can turn them into SMART goals, which indicates that a goal must be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timed.

•    Specific: The objectives will have specific requirements to be met. Therefore, review the syllabus and determine when each one will be addressed so you can plan ahead.
•    Measurable: Use the action word within the objective as your guide. For example, if you are asked to analyze something, be certain you have a good understanding of the topic.
•    Attainable: The objectives establish expectations for your work. You can assess your strengths and weaknesses so that you are prepared to meet each goal.
•    Realistic: If an objective is beyond your present knowledge level or learning capability, consider what resources you need and ask your instructor for feedback if you are still uncertain.
•    Timed: All of the objectives must be met by the end of the course. However, some objectives are divided up and matched to weekly learning activities. Review each assignment to determine if it is aligned with an objective so you are prepared to do your best.

Learning objectives are a component of every course because they guide the development of the content provided and they establish a purpose for all of the class assignments. For online students, it is the primary method of implementing expectations and measuring their performance or work product. You can use your class and assignment objectives as a set of goals to monitor your progress throughout the class. As you work towards completion of each goal, you will have a guide for the knowledge and skill sets required to successfully meet each objective. Once all of the objectives have been met, you will have completed the course in the manner for which it was designed and maximized your potential for learning.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Marnie Burkhart/Corbis


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