“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.