Constructing strong and sustainable objectives

One of the building blocks of curriculum design is the objective or the outcomes and goals instructors want to achieve by the conclusion of a course or an individual lesson. Objectives can also be tied to department-, school-, college-, or university-wide goals and outcomes. This post will first provide a brief primer to Bloom’s Taxonomy, the most accessible tool for constructing strong and sustainable outcomes. I will then offer a walkthrough to guide the objective-building process.

As this is a longer post, feel free to use this table of contents to jump to a specific post section if you seek specific information.

One of the building blocks of curriculum design is the objective or the outcomes and goals instructors want to achieve by the conclusion of a course or an individual lesson. Objectives can also be tied to department-, school-, college-, or university-wide goals and outcomes. This post will first provide a brief primer to Bloom’s Taxonomy, the most accessible tool for constructing strong and sustainable outcomes. I will then offer a walk-through to guide the objective-building process.

This post builds on a previous post (“Revisiting the Syllabus: Paths Toward Successful Course Design“).

  1. Why focus on objectives?
  2. Why Bloom?
  3. How do I put this into practice?
    1. What is this class even about?: Identifying course content and mission
    2. What is my course getting students to think about?: The essential question
    3. How am I making sure my course is cohesive?: Developing objective structures
    4. How will I know if students “got” my course?: Constructing course outcomes and bridging course goals to lesson objectives
Why focus on objectives?

Objectives are our opportunities as instructors to share with students the most essential element(s) of inquiry in our courses. Essentially, it is a chance to be transparent about what students need to be able to know and do by the end of our courses (and lessons). You can also think about objectives as if they are the bones of a body. They offer the stability and structure a course needs to stand independently. Without objectives, the classes are loose and without a solid foundation to succeed.

On a broader level, objectives help ensure alignment and offer ways to reflect on larger goals and outcomes of institutions. They are the most common and foundational items in education that assessments can be built from.

Some will critique the use of objectives, especially in higher education, where there is a deep history of academic freedom. Objectives should not be seen as a barrier to academic freedom but as a way to enhance independence. Having objectives affords consistency of skills across courses and within courses. Objectives do not dictate texts or instructional strategies, although they can help with critical thinking about both. Rather than thinking of the structure as a barrier to one’s freedom in the classroom, thinking of objectives as a way to be as forthcoming and transparent about your freedom and the students’ ultimately learning from it.

Why Bloom?

There is no one way to approach writing objectives. I tend to favor utilizing Bloom’s Taxonomy when thinking about course design, especially as it is a quick and easy way to think about growth and getting students from point A to point Z.

Bloom’s Taxonomy currently has six levels, which can be described as a hierarchy of learning. The lower three levels are considered lower-order thinking, whereas the higher three are high-order. These levels of learning, as Bloom sees it, are ways to categorize educational goals (or outcomes or objectives). The taxonomy is represented as a pyramid, with the base (“Knowledge”) being the critical precondition for the skills one would then learn. When the taxonomy was later revised due to the increase of digital within education, “Knowledge” became “Remembering,” thus mimicking the other levels as a formal skill or application rather than just a base of information. Remembering is about one’s foundational knowledge.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy will also help with thinking about the in-class instruction and then the assessment of that.

This visual showcases how Bloom’s Taxonomy represents a nested approach to goal development. In this example, remembering is the inner core of all goal achievement. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the levels at the base are essential when it comes to building toward mastery in higher levels of learning. The questions in the center column help guide the verb choice you select in the right column.

Bloom’s approach is arguably one of the most important innovations in education, particularly as it relates to mapping cognitive learning skills to the development of curriculum and instruction. Using Bloom’s framework allows for more attention to scaffolding and developing more robust structures for learning that build on one another. It also helps to ensure that courses build upon one another or even larger educational goals of institutions. It doesn’t just have to be used for a particular class, which is why its versatility is essential.

For our purposes, we will focus on a particular course and show how one builds objectives from the lowest to the highest level of learning.

How do I put this into practice?

Now that we know why objectives and Bloom matter, we can put this knowledge into practice. What follows is a guide to writing objectives that are (1) strong and sustainable, (2) measurable, and (3) scaffolded. The first section will show how to interrogate our course titles and descriptions to identify what content and skills are essential components to write into objectives. The second section builds on the first and helps us challenge our thinking about the most crucial inquiry our classes will focus on and how we write inquiries into essential questions. The third shows how to set up cohesive objectives. I use this chart to help myself (1) brainstorm and (2) understand levels of learning to be done with the objectives. The fourth section details how to map the objectives for course-wide outcomes and individual lesson goals.

What is this class even about?: Identifying course content and mission

Objectives can also be considered an extension of the mission of the course. When I write objectives, I first think about a course’s title and description. I do this because the two seemingly represent the most public-facing and focused representations of what students will do in the course.

To practice this, I will use the following course title and course description:

Ethical Problems of Journalism

Designed to help aspiring journalists explore the moral issues and dilemmas that they can expect to confront while working as professional journalists. Topics include, but are not limited to, truth-telling, conflicts of interest, promise-keeping, social justice, beneficence, avoiding harm and repairing harm. The topics are situated within normative theories of ethics.

When I think through this particular course, I first ask what the title says. Our course titles are often broad and loaded with opportunity; even when we teach special topics or graduate courses, the title represents several places to start our processing. I’ve included questions I would pose to each part of the course title. In doing so, I then compiled a list of terms that would respond to those questions. I find it helpful to stick to one- to two-word responses to these questions, but I also spend ample time drawing and diagramming.

Ethical: What is ethics? What theories do I include here? What topics are inherent to ethics?

Problems: What topics would be included here? How are they issues of ethics? What makes them problems? What makes the problems different from what I identified topically within “Ethical”?

The preposition “of” helps me to focus my ideas further. While I would have a list of topics and ideas related to “Ethical” and “Problems” created at this point, knowing that the preposition focuses my course on journalism, I would star or highlight journalism-related terms and topics on the aforementioned lists.

Journalism: What is journalism? What different journalistic products could I list here?

Ethical Problems of Journalism

The course title gave me a glimpse into the possibilities of the overall course design but an even more focused purpose to what I would picture the course’s goals and outcomes. It also helps me think about what I value as I design my course and objectives.

Included here is an example of the visual mapping I start my process with, which doesn’t necessarily consider the various connections within and among these ideas. For example, the thinkers I’ve listed above could be connected to specific theories. Additionally, I try to differentiate between problems and journalism because the idea of dilemmas (noted within “Ethical”) is representative of the problems that the different products of journalism may encounter.

Now that I’ve broken down the title, which provided me with topics and various possibilities to attack the design of my course, I turn to annotate the course description. Here are the questions I ask of the description when I’m annotating it:

  • What does the course description tell students about my class?
  • What specific ideas or topics emerge in the course description?
  • What isn’t included in the course description that I identified in my course title list?
  • What skills are included in the course description?
  • How does the description define the course title/topic?

Using those questions, here is how I would break down my course description:

As you can see, when I work with the course description, I’m trying to understand its purpose, which should inform my design-centered practice. I consider the word choice and what that implies, as well as where I can create instructional experiences unique to my expertise. I also ask additional questions, which should hopefully help me get to some of the instructional decisions I would ultimately make.

I do two things with this information. I first write a second-course description, one representative of the course the students will be taking. I write this description with accessible language and a more informal and engaged tone. We’re often told in academic writing to avoid the use of informality; I lean into this when I design courses. The course bulletin course description is oftentimes a more formal-toned paragraph. I consider the more informal approach as an opportunity to develop a shared and open learning environment. This mission is then also verbalized as an essential question. The second is to write the course objectives.

What is my course getting students to think about?: The essential question

It is essential to look back at your list and annotations. In doing so, ask yourself this: what do I want students to be curious about? Identifying this focus is the point of inquiry, which will become the essential question you ask of the course. I like to think of an essential question like the North Star for my curriculum. Everything should, in some way, shape, or form, be building toward responding to that question(s).

I start with a list of potential combinations of my annotations:

What does it mean to be an ethical journalist?

What is ethical journalism practice?

How do journalists participate in their communities?

How do journalists confront ethical concerns in their practice?

Why should journalists be ethical?

Who defines what it means to be an ethical journalist?

How do journalists balance their social and professional responsibilities?

How does ethical behavior guide journalistic practice?

How can ethical theory guide journalistic practice?

What do journalists value?

How do journalistic values impact ethical norms in journalism?

I then think about how these questions could be responded to and, ultimately, how they can be synthesized to ask a question or two that will guide the creation of my objectives. I also don’t throw away these questions. Just because I don’t use them all for my course question doesn’t mean they aren’t worth being questions that guide an individual lesson. Find a place to store these questions to keep them handy for future planning. Here’s the question I’ve chosen to use for this exercise:

Why should journalists be ethical?

How am I making sure my course is cohesive?: Developing objective structures

Here’s the wordsmithing part of this exercise. I find this part of planning to be enjoyable; others probably disagree. Start by putting your essential question big and bold in front of you. Much like you annotated the course title and description, you’ll want to break down your question into parts. When you do this, you’ll start identifying outcomes that students will work to become proficient in as they progress through the course using the essential question as their inquiry guide. The various components of the essential question that you break down will show up as terms in your objectives.

This is an example of how I would start breaking down my EQ to figure out important components to start writing objectives about. Because EQs are broad, they afford a lot of flexibility and opportunity for academic freedom if multiple instructors teach the same course.

When with think about what we want students to learn by the time they are done with the course, we should brain dump first. I now turn my essential question annotations into objectives. This is where objective structures come into play. It may seem basic, but templates are helpful when doing this. I also think that Bloom’s Taxonomy lends itself to templates. Think of this template/formula as you write your objectives.

Students will + Bloom’s Taxonomy Verb + Outcome

Try writing objectives using this template and start with the end in mind. I then create what I call objective structures. I begin with the highest level of learning, “Create,” knowing that level is where I want students to be when they leave my course. I tend to write a “Create” objective and then work backward from that objective until I get to a “Remember” objective. This way, I can see how each level of objective connects and how it connects. The group of six (or more if I have multiple objectives for a learning level) is an objective structure to use throughout the class.

For example: Students will…

CREATE: design ethical scenarios to train future journalists how to solve ethical dilemmas.

EVALUATE: critique journalistic practice associated with different ethical dilemmas; argue how ethical journalistic practice impacts the communities journalists serve.

ANALYZE: problem-solve case studies of ethical journalistic practice.

APPLY: demonstrate how normative ethical theories produce different outcomes to ethical dilemmas.

UNDERSTAND: summarize normative ethical theories’ main argument; distinguish between different ethical theories’ arguments.

REMEMBER: identify ethical theories and their associated ethical theorist.

I’m a fan of putting everything down on notebook paper and using a pen, so I don’t self-edit up front. I want to get all the good and bad out there before I decide which objectives are the most important to answer my essential question and which build as lesson objectives toward the final course outcomes.

Once I’ve created several objective structures, I then move to organize them between course objectives (outcomes or goals) and lesson objectives (outcomes or goals).

How will I know if students “got” my course?: Constructing course outcomes and bridging course goals to lesson objectives

Course objectives are traditionally measured using summative assessments. Summative assessments are usually built toward using formative assessments. The formative assessments emerge in daily lesson planning, which includes lesson objectives. But the question is, how do we decide what goes where once we’ve got all these lists (objective structures) of objectives to work with?

When organizing, your course objectives will likely be the highest-level taxonomic verbs. Your lesson objectives will be the lower-level taxonomic verbs. The lower the level of the objective’s verb, the earlier in the semester it will likely be. Start this process by throwing out the idea that you are constrained by certain weeks or times. The focus should be on how much time you believe it would take to get students from the lesson to course objectives. This mindset is about student growth.

Using the objective structure I included before, I would want the “Remember” and “Understand” objectives to be early in the semester as they are foundational pieces of knowledge that students would need to know. Additionally, we know that normative theories are important because they are noted directly in the course description. As the semester continues, students would be introduced to ethical dilemmas and solving them, represented by the objectives above.

Students would first apply their knowledge of ethical theories to an ethical dilemma.

They would then use that knowledge and application to analyze a case study.

This leads students to evaluate practice within a dilemma and its impact on a community.

Lastly, which would likely be a summative assessment for the students in class, they would create a dilemma that can then be used to teach journalists ethical practice and respond to the overarching EQ about why journalists should be ethical.

Spacing the objectives is a puzzle and usually involves multiple objective structures in the process. By using your objectives to construct your course plan, you are initially freeing yourself of the term’s time limit and instead focusing on the time you need to build from one objective to the next. This also means that instead of topics being the course structure, skills become the skeleton you map topics onto when designing your course. One of the concerns I had up front when planning for “Ethical Problems in Journalism” is what could be included within the term “Problems” and “Journalism.” By focusing on writing objectives first, how I then explore individual problems based on a wide array of journalists, journalistic platforms, and journalistic story types that can be more fluid, free, and formatted to student interests and needs.

At this point, you have a significant amount of your course prep done before you’ve even moved on to completing the syllabus because you’ve thought critically about the curriculum AND the instruction. The course you are building is structurally focused on students’ skills acquisition (your objectives) and through a lens of inquiry (your essential question).

Importantly, you’ve also created a foundation of a course that can easily be modified and revised the more you teach it. Because we’ve focused on building solid objectives connected to inquiry and throughout the course, we’ve created a sustainable educational structure. The broader objectives help us to be able to use different examples, topics, and texts in a course. They also help us to derive instructional decisions that keep student needs and growth at the forefront of learning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: