Writing aims and objectives
|University of Cambridge > School of the Biological Sciences > Faculty of Biology|
People coming new to the Quality Assessment game encounter new terminology the meaning of which may not be self-evident. "Aims and Objectives" have to be provided for each course that we provide, and this document attempts to provide an explanation of these terms. Part I is a definition of the terms; Part II is a more detailed discussion of how to prepare a statement of learning objectives.
PART I : DEFINITION OF AIMS AND OBJECTIVES
[This is extracted from the Subject Review Handbook: October 1998 to September 2000 published by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAAHE) (Reference No: QAA 1/97, December 1997), pp. 30 - 31.]
The statement of aims and objectives prepared by the subject provider is an essential yardstick by which quality is assessed. The job of reviewers is to evaluate and report on the learning experiences of students in relation to the stated aims and objectives. The statement is therefore important in defining and communicating the nature of the educational provision, the intended learning outcomes for each programme of study, and will serve as the focus of enquiries during the subject review visit.
The terms aims and objectives are defined in a particular sense for the purposes of subject review:
Format and Word Limit
Experience suggests that subject providers have found it difficult to summarise their aims and objectives within 500 words, particularly where the educational provision is large and complex. The word limit for the 1998-2000 QAA exercise has therefore bee n relaxed, and is as follows:
The statement of aims and objectives should be no longer than three pages of A4 (up to 1,250 words).
Objectives in Medical Education
There are certain specific objectives - subdivided into knowledge objectives, skills objectives and attitudinal objectives - that have been specified in Tomorrow's Doctors, published in 1993 by the General Medical Council. Medical education in Cam bridge must conform to these (generally uncontentious) objectives. There is no comparable list of objectives for natural science and veterinary students, and it is therefore the job of each major course provider to develop his/her own set of objectives within the scope of the overall University mission statement.
PART II : PREPARING INSTRUCTIONAL OBJECTIVES
[This section is based on the work of Norman E. Gronlund Stating Behavioural Objectives for Classroom Instruction.]
Typically, teachers, if they attempt to state instructional objectives, do so in terms of (1) the teacher's performance; (2) the learning process; or (3) the subject matter to be covered. For example, it would not be unusual to find the following as an instructional objective in many educational institutions: "To increase students' reading ability."
The problem with the above statement is that it focuses upon what the teacher wants to do. Technically, once the teacher had carried out whatever plan he had prepared to "increase students' reading ability", he would have achieved his objective and we would be left wondering whether, in fact, students had increased their reading ability.
The approach to preparing instructional objectives advocated here stresses focusing attention on the student and on the type of performance he is expected to demonstrate at the end of instruction. In other words, it is suggested that instructional objectives should be stated in terms of the desired learning outcomes. Following this suggestion, the above objective might reasonably read: "Comprehends assigned reading material." Note that this statement stresses what the student will be able to do after instruction rather than how the teacher will behave during instruction. Stating instructional objectives as learning outcomes contributes to the instructional process in the following ways:
Defining learning outcomes is really a two-step process:
Two examples are listed below, with the general learning outcome stated first, followed by representative samples of specific types of student behaviour that might indicate attainment of the objective.
Stating the general instructional objective first and then clarifying it further by listing types of specific behaviour that characterise the object makes clear that the instructional objective above is understanding, and that defining, identifying, and distinguishing between are simply samples of the types of performance that represent understanding. It would be impossible to list all types of behaviour that might show understanding; therefore, one must settle for a representative sample of the types of behaviour that, in the judgement of the teacher, adequately describe the objective.
Teaching efforts must be directed toward the general objectives of instruction and not toward the specific samples of behaviour selected to represent each objective. For example, in teaching an understanding of technical terms, we might have students listen to a lecture, study textbook definitions, compare and contrast the terms during class discussion, and use the terms in laboratory work. When we test the students, however, we would present them with a list of technical terms and ask them to define each term in their own words, identify the meaning of each term when used in a context, and distinguish between terms that are similar in meaning. Note that the test calls for a type of response that was not directly taught during instruction. This is necessary if the test behaviour is to show an understanding rather than merely a recall of previous training.
When developing a list of general instructional objectives for a course or unit of course work, the aim is to obtain a list of general objectives to work toward and not a list of specific types of words that are particularly useful in articulating general instructional objectives. Examples are listed below:
Note that the above verbs are specific enough to provide direction for instruction without overly restricting the teacher or reducing the instruction to a simplistic level. They are also specific enough to be easily defined by a brief list of the types of behaviour students are to demonstrate when the objectives have been achieved. Choosing from eight to twelve general objectives will usually provide a list that is both manageable and suitable for a unit of instruction.
When elaborating general instructional objectives so as to define specific learning outcomes, that is, identifying and listing under each objective a representative sample of specific types of behaviour that are to be used as evidence that the objective has been achieved, it is important to use verbs that indicate observable behaviour, that is, behaviour that can be seen by an outside observer. Such words as the following are particularly useful:
Words like realises, sees, feels, suggests are less clear and therefore should be avoided.
To illustrate once again the relationship between a general instructional objective and specific learning outcomes that can be used as evidence that the objective has been achieved, consider the following example:
General Instructional Objective
Uses critical thinking skills in reading.
Specific Learning Outcomes (in behavioural terms)
Distinguishes between facts and opinion.
Although this list of types of specific behaviour is by no means complete, a careful reading of the statements will provide a fairly good indication of what students are like when they are able to use critical thinking skills in reading. Thus, this list is perhaps comprehensive enough to clarify the instructional intent and short enough to be manageable and useful.
During the process of defining the general instruction objectives, it may be necessary to modify the original list. In identifying the specific types of behaviour for the objectives, you may realise that some of them are too general and need to be subdivided.
In defining other objectives, you might note that the specific types of behaviour overlap to such a degree that is desirable to combine two statements into a single objective. Thus, applies scientific procedures and plans simple experiments might best be combined into a single objective like uses the scientific method effectively.
Because instructional objectives can be stated in many different ways and at various levels of generality, there is considerable flexibility in the formulation of the statements. Thus, the listing of specific types of behaviour provides a good opportunity for evaluating the original list of instructional objectives and for revising them if necessary. The ultimate aim, of course, is to derive a final list of general objectives and specific behaviours that most clearly indicate the learning outcomes expected from instruction.
One further note. Beware of neglecting those objectives that are difficult to define. Simple objectives like knows common terms are easy to state in specific behavioural terms. There is a tendency to overload the list of instructional goals with such objectives because they are so easy to define. The more complex objectives, although difficult to define, are usually more important from an educational standpoint. Objectives pertaining to thinking skills, attitudes, and appreciation should not be slighted because of the difficulty of clearly defining them.
In general summary, the procedure for defining instructional objectives should include the following steps: