It’s fair to say that students don’t care about objectives—at least, they don’t care about the word “objectives.” After all, they haven’t been engaged in conversations about practice-based pedagogy or learning assessment. They haven’t had to measure student artifacts against benchmarks nor have they thought about constructing the “narrative” of a college course. What they do care about, however, is understanding the “bigger picture”: what are they going to learn, how they are going to learn it, and why. In faculty-speak, they care about objectives.
So, how can we talk to students about objectives in a way that makes sense? Here are some tips to help connect the theory of learning to the learners:
Make it part of the course’s narrative. We know that learning objectives on a course syllabus provide helpful goals posts for student performance and learning. You can use these goal posts to signal a transition between learning units, demonstrate connections between topics, and reinforce the underlying theory or thesis of the course. Students can track their progress through the course by using your narrative and the corresponding objectives to help create the “bigger picture.”
Be transparent. Tell students why these objectives are important not only to their classwork but to their academic journey. Discuss how the skills and information you are teaching connect with previous learning experiences (general education courses, prerequisites) and future learning experiences (upper-level courses, capstones, internships). Most importantly: make sure your objectives are written for students.
Make constant connections. Sure, the objectives are in the course syllabus, but as we’ve already discussed, it’s going to take a lot of creativity to get them reading it on the first day. And while it’s important to go through the objectives on the first day, they aren’t just a first-day thing. You should remind students of the course objectives during your microlectures, in your assignment prompts, and as key elements of your rubrics. These connections help students (and you) to track their progress in these important course areas.
Point it out when they do it. Acknowledging (and dare I say, celebrating?) when students effectively engage with a course objective helps to concretize these goals. If students score well on an exam, write effective essays, or complete an in-class activity, point out how they are meeting a course objective. These acknowledgements reinforce that these goals are important and that they can and should be met.
Talking to students about objectives helps create a common understanding about the learning experience. It reinforces your purpose, contextualizes individual units, helps promote synthesis, and motivates progress.