What if You Don’t Give Objectives to Your Learners?


“When you are taking a course, what happens when the facilitator shows a slide with 4-6 learning objectives on it? Do you pay attention, or does your brain turn off? If you are like me (even though I am a learning professional with many years of experience), my brain has a tendency to turn off when I see learning objectives at the beginning of a course. Often, learning objectives are so formally stated that I feel distanced from the information, and I don’t find enough value in expending the energy needed to unpack that language. Instead, I find myself just wanting to know what the focus of the course is, what topics it will cover, and in what order the topics will be covered, and I want all this in plain, simple language.”

Those are the words of Elaine Carr, a training instructional designer. Does this view match with your experience when attending professional learning events?  Do you think it might be what your students think of the learning objectives on your course syllabus or your lecture slides?

As a faculty developer, I commonly make observations of classroom teaching. Most instructors project a slide with obligatory learning objectives (aka student learning outcomes) near the beginning of their presentation.  As I look around the room, very few eyes are on the screen.  Sometimes those objectives are not very clear, rarely inspire learning, and are too numerous for digestion in the instant allotted.  The instructor has done her or his duty by writing objectives (usually shared online beforehand where they may or may not have garnered greater attention) but rarely highlights them in any meaningful way, explains their importance as learning goals for the session, or uses them as reminders at appropriate points during the class where each is addressed.

For many years I have facilitated workshops on class-session design that focus on organization, evidence-based design of PowerPoint slides, and utilization of impactful active learning.  As a part of those workshops, I again project the workshop learning-objectives slide about half-way through and ask why it was important to show these objectives near the beginning.  Five years ago, I still received many responses about the value of the objectives for emphasizing what to learn and as a roadmap for the workshop.  However, increasingly in more recent years the general response is, “Oh, I don’t even remember that slide of objectives, so I guess it really wasn’t valuable at all.”  Probably the response that Elaine Carr would give.

I assert that learners have become immune to learning objectives.  Instructors of both college and professional education are almost reflexively trained to show learning objectives to learners. It has become so routine that the audience does not even pay attention, as Carr points out.  Furthermore, the objectives may not really make much sense to the learner prior to being exposed to the planned learning experience.

Continue reading “What if You Don’t Give Objectives to Your Learners?”


The Lecture is Dead, Long Live the Lecture (?)


(photo by Graham Stanley, Creative Common License)

Are you an educator who relies heavily, perhaps mostly, possibly entirely, on lectures as your primary teaching tool?

If so, do you wonder what the point is of articles with titles such as these?

Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing

Teaching More by Lecturing Less

12-Step Recovery Program for Lectureholics

Twilight of the Lecture

Medical School Says Goodbye to Lectures


Can 800 Years of Educational Practice be Wrong?

As a faculty developer, I encounter many adherents of lecture who point to the staying power of the technique as an indication that it must be effective.  Furthermore, if you attained higher degrees, employment, and substantial career achievement after receiving a strongly lecture-based undergraduate and graduate or professional education, then are you not a poster child for the educational efficacy of lecture?

In Rethinking University Teaching, education scholar Diana Laurillard nonetheless states:

“Why aren’t lectures scrapped as a teaching method? If we forget the eight hundred years of university tradition that legitimises them, and imagine starting afresh with the problem of how to enable a large percentage of the population to understand difficult and complex ideas, I doubt that lectures will immediately spring to mind as the obvious solution.”

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Are Learning Styles an Illusion?

gears_in_head_outline_pc_1794 opposite

Do you ascribe to the idea that people have different learning styles, such that learning is supported by the optimal match of instruction with style but hindered by a mismatch?  In other words, to use a common learning-style discriminator, optimal learning requires instructing identified verbal learners with a verbal sensory experience while implementing a visually oriented instructional design for the visual learners.  If you do hold this view, then you must understand that you are swimming upstream against a torrential current of contrary evidence.

Lack of evidence or meaningful theory

Criticism of learning styles as indicators for teaching have existed as long as the many popular instruments that supposedly measure these differences.  A recent decade of loud objection to learning styles began with an important 2008 publication by a team of cognitive psychologists led by Harold Pashler.  Their article was commissioned by Psychology in the Public Interest to assess the scientific evidence for applying learning-styles assessments in school contexts.  The authors addressed this task by reviewing the literature to test the “meshing hypothesis”.  Consider students A and B who are assessed as having opposite styles (e.g., verbal versus visual learners).  According to the meshing hypothesis, student A will outperform student B when instruction matches A’s style but the reverse will be true if the instruction of the same material matches B’s style.  Despite the importance of the meshing hypothesis to decades-long advocacy for teaching to individual learning styles, Pashler and his colleagues found very few studies with research methodologies appropriate for testing the hypothesis.  Furthermore, the relevant existing studies failed to support the hypothesis.  The Pashler et al. article received great attention in professional publications and the popular media – I remember reading about it in a syndicated education column in my local newspaper.  The results were championed by skeptics of learning styles in not only educational psychology contexts but also in disciplines ranging from culinary training to medical school.  The assertion of learning styles as myth is now highly visible.

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Feedback: It’s more than just “Good Job!”


I have the opportunity to regularly meet with colleagues and discuss one of my favorite topics: Feedback.  Providing effective, constructive feedback in a way that avoids a visceral sense of fear or admonition is one of the greatest challenges we face as academicians.  Just the word “feedback” can incite palpitations, diaphoresis, breathlessness, and nausea—not that dissimilar from the heralds of a heart attack, right? Additionally, learners can feel vulnerable to feedback, and when feedback is given inappropriately, it can induce a frightening fugue-like state, where the feedback provided neither improves the performance of the learner in a lasting fashion nor engenders trust that the institution has an investment in watching for the improved learner performance. So, what can we do to embrace the best practices of feedback?

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Research-based PowerPoint design … are you using best practice?



When I ask faculty or students to list their most ineffective learning experiences in college or professional life, some aspect of the use of PowerPoint is always on the list.  “Death by PowerPoint”, they commonly say.  In fact, if you search for “death by PowerPoint” in GoogleTM, you will find more than 3.5 million hits.  So, it’s not surprising that it seems like everyone has an opinion on how to make a better PowerPoint presentation; search for “PowerPoint tips” and you’ll find more than 26.7 million links.  What is astounding, however, is how much of this web-shared wisdom recycles myths and ignores the research on design of visual aids for learning during an oral presentation or even the legibility of the slides.  What does the evidence actually say for the maximum number of bullets to include on a slide?  Zero. Isn’t it true that we should use blue background because blue is calming and increases a sense of pleasantness?  Try again.

When criticizing “PowerPoint-enhanced” presentations it is important to separate the fault of the presenter from the fault of the program.  The program can actually accomplish a great deal to support effective learning during a presentation, primarily by supporting visual learning.  The problem rests with how it is used, especially when the presenter applies default templates that encourage meaningless titles, bullet lists of text, and distracting color-graphic backgrounds that have nothing to do with the presentation content.  Bullet lists are arguably most useful for the presenter, giving him or her something to read or to prompt memory.  The development of bullets in the software was a response to the original buyers of the product – the business world.  Catchy marketing phrases and lists of a few take-home productivity points were key aspects of the 1980s business meeting.  Slide templates that met the needs of this original PowerPoint market were then utilized, due to ease of access, by all PowerPoint consumers.  Henceforth, bullet lists became the socialized norm for visual presentation in everything from elementary-school book reports, to battlefield preparation, to the uninformative technical briefing that is partly implicated in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.  There is no indication that such brief outlines actually facilitate learning so why should educators use these templates?  Even one of the inventors of PowerPoint, Robert Gaskins, is baffled: “The real mystery to me is why PowerPoint, including its default presentation style based on traditional business presentations, has been adopted so widely in other contexts.”

Continue reading “Research-based PowerPoint design … are you using best practice?”

Flipping Your Classroom May Be Easier Than You Think


Take a moment to complete this true-or-false quiz:

  1. The flipped classroom means that direct instruction, such as lecture, is moved online for pre-class completion, and homework is moved into the scheduled face-to-face instructional time.
  2. The flipped classroom model is new, originating only about a decade ago.
  3. Effective flipped classroom instruction involves the production of videos for students to watch before class.

If you answered “true” to most or all of these questions, then you likely see the flipped classroom as something that is radically different from college teaching as it was practiced more than a decade ago, requires use of technology, and expects considerable commitment by faculty (and perhaps, support staff) to generate videos, animations, or other technology tools for online delivery.  Does that view motivate you to flip your instruction or does it seem intimidating and not a teaching approach that you feel that you have time to implement or confidence to commit to?

I will make an argument for answering “false” to each of these three statements in order to show that “flipping” has a track record longer than the popularity of the term and can be implemented without dedication of extensive time or money to the use of technology.

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Are small groups for learning or career preparation?

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Do you assign small-group exercises because you understand that interactivity fosters greater learning?  Do you assign team projects as preparation for workplace expectations? Do you discourage students’ resistance to group work by pointing out that their future employers expect the development of teamwork skills?  If you answered “yes” to two or more of these questions, are you confident that your execution of cooperative/collaborative learning is consistent with your responses?

A case in point: A pharmacy faculty member dropped by my office to explain pushback from colleagues in response to a best-practices list for implementing cooperative learning strategies.  Of particular concern was the recommendation that student teams should be permanent for the duration of the course.  This practice is supported by the resilience of research regarding Bruce Tuckman’s team-development stages – forming, storming, norming, performing – in group settings ranging from psychotherapy to classrooms to diverse workplaces.  The evidence points strongly to the benefit of group members working together for periods of months before reaching high levels of performance output while recognizing intra-team tensions as expected storming rather than a symptom of group dysfunction.  So what was the problem? “Interprofessional healthcare teams consist of different people on almost every shift,” my colleague appropriately pointed out. “So the pharmacy faculty feel that changing team membership frequently, perhaps every day, would be more effective preparation for the students’ upcoming clinical training and future careers.”  Indeed, an apparent paradox.

What is our goal, as educators, for assigning work to small groups or teams?  For meeting course learning objectives, we likely focus on the learning achievement of the individual student while leveraging the benefit of interactive learning, perhaps in a cooperative-learning approach.  When we consider the workplace expectations for our learners in the future – and, perhaps for us at the moment – the focus is usually on the performance of the team that takes advantage of specific, differentiated expertise and roles within the team that require collaboration.  The first approach favors meeting the learning objectives of the course whereas the second favors workforce preparation.

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Is there a right way to teach with clickers?

CC0 pixabay
CC0 pixabay

Is there a right way to teach with clickers?

2016 is the 25th anniversary of audience response systems in higher education classrooms. Commonly implemented with “clickers”, responses are increasingly collected by utilizing personal mobile devices and early approaches simply used lettered flashcards.  With such a long track record, it is worth asking: “Is there is a right way, and hence also wrong ways, to teach with clickers?”

An initial answer might be that there are many ways to use any technology tool and that whatever feels comfortable to the teacher, fits in with the instructor’s existing pedagogy, and is compatible with course objectives must be right. Perhaps there is a better question: “Is there a best way to learn from using clickers?”  The unambiguous answer to that question is, “Yes; peer instruction.”  The remaining paradox is that very few faculty members know or practice this research-based strategy.  As depicted in the metaphorical image, many directions may seem right but they may actually not lead you to the intended destination and running off road into the sand may unnecessarily taint your view of the technology. Continue reading “Is there a right way to teach with clickers?”