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Why show learners the objectives?

by Stephen W. Draper


These are the views I came to from the discussion in February 2001 on ITFORUM.

See also this site:

Contents (click to jump to a section)


A practice widely subscribed to is to publish the LOs (learning objectives) of a course or unit at the start (e.g. in a multimedia CD, my department's course handbooks). Is this right and/or necessary?

As an introduction, I suggest that LOs (learning objectives) are probably just like OHPs / powerpoint slides: all are there to help the instructor, only sometimes do they help the learner too.

As for adult vs. child learners, Bill Barowy pointed out that a child must have developed a certain level of metacognitive skill before they can possibly benefit from stated learning objectives. Nevertheless, the main difference could be in what those groups believe they need, rather than what they really use in their learning. It may be that adults feel better as consumers to see the LOs, yet really those make no difference to their learning. Why do I think that? well, someone already gave an example of children using the LOs to prompt the teacher. Conversely, in other settings, such as going to a movie or watching a TV documentary, adults will be much more tolerant of receiving no LOs but perhaps learning things they weren't expecting to gain from it.

George E. Marsh II listed their uses to the teacher and/or designer, according to Mager:
"An objective is a description of a performance you want learners to be able to exhibit before you consider them competent. An objective describes an intended result of instruction, rather than the process of instruction itself. "

Clearly, the instructional process, according to this definition, is wholly the concern of the instructor. Mager listed three reasons for using behavioral objectives, paraphrased below, only the last one accounting for the point of view of the learner.

  1. Without objectives, there is no sound basis for the selection or designing of instructional materials, content, or methods.
  2. A second important reason for stating objectives sharply has to do with finding out whether the objective has, in fact, been accomplished.
  3. Finally, clearly defined objectives provide students with a means to organize their own efforts toward accomplishment of those objectives.

Mager, R.F. (1984). Preparing instructional objectives. (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: David S. Lake.

However the key issue that the discussion made me realise I should have been asking myself is: what use(s) are the LOs to the learner?

Main: what use are learning objectives to the learner?

I think the answers to this are various, but that it isn't a case of opposing ideologies or philosophies, nor that it's all hopelessly muddled and we cannot understand it: just that there are different cases or issues hiding here.

First: I have to admit to myself that there are cases where presenting the LOs up front is absolutely crucial. I have done work in HCI (Human Computer Interaction) on the Minimal Manual technique (how to write computer documentation that is actually usable and used), and a crucial part of that is heading each entry with a description in language the novice can understand of what the entry is about i.e. the command or feature does. I guess I have to admit that, in other jargon, that is an LO and it is crucial because users will at most only read the bit of the manual clearly relevant to their current urgent need to do the work in hand with this damn machine.

Furthermore, I have thought about, but not acted on, the idea of redesigning my HCI course so that it was all like a minimal manual: not lectured but offered as help in a construction project. What is frightening about this is how much of the curriculum would get abandoned as it fails to feed directly into the defining practical activity of building a user interface. A salutary discipline I'm not yet man enough to follow.

Secondly, in the middle of the spectrum, are the cases/issues including:

Also, a little further on from the middle, is the point that learners' interests, particularly their intrinsic interest in the subject area, are not the same as the teacher's. For instance, when I make notes on a talk or paper, many of them are not about what the author said but a point it triggers in me. The other day when discussing study skills with some students, one said they tended to confound these, and I recommended making both kinds of notes but marking them differently. This points up how LOs cannot direct the focus of instrinsically motivated learners. In contrast, the implicit logic of LOs is that only the teacher's aims are allowed: learners may only consult their interests at the time of course selection. But in reality, the heart of learning, at least in everyday life and graduate courses, is NOT to take an author uncritically but to select out what you want from it often for purposes the author couldn't imagine. For instance science works like that, with a fact having a utility and validity independently of its author's conclusions.

While the above is an example of learner goals not dictated by learning objectives, the converse may also apply. Sometimes (I heard this from first year students recently) a learner is delightfully surprised by what a course and its contents really consist of. If LOs worked and were used by students, this kind of suprise would not be possible.

At the far extreme of this spectrum is the argument from Piaget that, at least when it comes to crucial developmental schemas, a learner is logically unable to understand what it is (in a LO) before they have acquired it. That is, there is a question whether learners, even in principle, can understand a learning objective before they have accomplished the learning and thus know what knowledge or information it is referring to. The range of cases around this issue include:

  1. You know almost completely what it means to learn a new phone number. (Noticing that the new number is the same as your own plus one would be an example of something you didn't realise you would be learning here.)
  2. You can largely know what it will mean to learn a new recipe. (Though it may turn out not be useful after all, contrary to your belief and expectation, if it is too difficult, too lengthy to execute, too expensive, etc.)
  3. Larry Niven the science fiction author pointed out (in his short story "Flatlander") that a top class vendor of information has a problem: they can't show the customer what they are buying since with information, showing is delivering. So the customer must trust them blindly for purchases of things like "tell me things vital to my safety", or "the most unusual planet within 60 light years".
  4. Learners are in a similar situation, except that because learning is hard, the problem isn't getting it before paying, but deciding whether to make the effort of learning. (It is possible that you could go a long way towards defining "culture" on this basis: that within a culture everyone learns a lot of the same stuff independent of utility just because they have to trust the heuristic of learning what the others know, before they can evaluate whether they themselves think it was worth knowing.)

Information vendors (instructors) can at best only be trusted to the extent that they fully understand the learner, their needs, and prior knowledge. But constructivism reminds us that learners differ significantly enough that this hope is not fulfilled. In other words, learners have to trust teachers about what to learn because to a significant extent they cannot understand in advance enough to make rational decisions about what to learn themselves, whether or not the effects of learning are expressed in LOs. However this trust is not fully justified, and is seriously misplaced for instructional designers who haven't even met the learner in person.

Finally, near but not quite as far as that extremity is the argument about deep (as opposed to shallow) learning. [Marton,F., D.Hounsell & N.Entwistle (eds.) The experience of learning (Edinburgh: Scottish academic press)] Shallow learning by definition is learning for, but only for, a behavioural test. The literature claims to show that it leads to short retention, inability to transfer etc. Deep learning however is about forming many connections, preferably of many kinds, between the "material" and other things e.g. the definition and examples, the concept and the learner's individual personal experience (how does copper sulphate taste? how did aunt Lucy look when she was diagnosed as depressed?), etc. But perhaps we cannot actually predict what all these connections are going to be in advance (i.e. from the LOs). Furthermore the characteristic of deep learners, when interviewed, is that while shallow learners say their goal is to learn, deep learners say their goal is to understand. This perhaps is another way to connect educational ideas with our feeling that many good learning experiences have a big element of good luck, that different people get different good things from the same "instruction", and that learning/teaching to the test leads to bad learning on all criteria except the test (i.e. behavioural objective) including length of retention.

Another argument at this end is Seely Brown's and Duguid's that the value of a degree at a university depends on the (fame of the) awarding insitution and not on the content of the degree. They assert that no-one reads the transcript where at least some detail of the content is given. Instead, they just read the name of the institution. They say this goes with the fact that a big part of the value of a degree is in the wholly tacit parts of the learning experience: learning to be (and talk as) part of a particular community etc. [John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in an article now reprinted as the last chapter of their recent book "The social life of information" (2000) John Seely Brown, and Paul Duguid.]


So: what are the uses of LOs for learners (as opposed to teachers)?
  1. Deciding whether to do the learning (take the course or unit).
  2. Learners may use LOs to direct their attention during a learning activity. But maybe not, too. The technique of providing "advance organisers" relates to this.
  3. Learners may use LOs to organise their further work, revision, etc. This is usually, however, heavily directed towards the assessment: that is why they are anxious to organise their work.
  4. Knowing afterwards a) this is what they learned; b) how to articulate that briefly and abstractly.

The essential incompleteness of LOs. Unassessed learning benefits

Again, it seems to come down to focussing learning around shallow learning: to achieving only specific behavioural goals, and missing what is meant by "understanding" i.e. any substantial relating of the new material to everything the learner already knows, is interested in, has personally experienced. In short, it misses any element of personal development, anything educational as opposed to pure training. So LOs relate to half, but only half, the issues in learning.

The phenomenon of the hidden curriculum is about the gap between stated and assessed LOs, plus the practice of explicitly demanding unrealistically large amounts of work. [Snyder,Benson R. (1971) The hidden curriculum (MIT press; Boston, Mass.)] This pressure requires learners to a) be discerning about finding the minimum essential work i.e. mainly learning for the actual assessment, and b) get used to disregarding a lot of what the teachers say particularly about the goals of the course.

Wherever this pressure exists, the main effect is to promote shallow learning. The "solution" quoted, in this discussion as elsewhere, is to get the assessment in line with the learning objectives. However, while this removes the stress for the learners and the unconscious hypocrisy for the teachers, in fact this seems equally to lead to shallow learning and so does not solve what may be the bigger part of the problem.

Should we accept a substantial gap betweeen stated aims and actual benefits of a course, contrary to such professional-seeming advice? Brown & Duguid in effect put a positive spin on this. Should we start to think about how it could be the right thing to do? E.g.

  1. Teachers do not themselves really understand why the learning activities they are putting on are beneficial. (Why is literacy good? why is writing good? why is peer discussion valuable? why is computer programming cognitively transforming? ....) Since they don't understand what it is that's good, they can't write it down in learning aims and objectives.
  2. A lot of it is about being/becoming part of a community, not about facts learned or behaviour acquired.
  3. Learning, especially deep learning, is about forming personal connections between the common matter of the course, and the personal collection of prior knowledge, experience, and interests in the learner. Can't put this in detail into LOs, unless you write a different set for each learner.
  4. Constructivism would have to say the same thing, though in different terms: that because learners are different, and learning depends upon the learners' prior knowledge, you can't specify important aspects of learning in advance / independent of knowing the individual learner.
  5. etc.

On a large scale (as opposed to the small scale of writing a manual or training course on how to use a photocopier) this may fit with what we see. If I ask people about their lives, while many of us grumble about the effect ageing is having on us, it is hard to find someone who really wants to be young again and lose the understanding and experiences they have had. And the value they now have for their learning is seldom what could have been foreseen by them before they did it. In fact we do not seem to have chosen most of what has formed us, and that we now value, any more than we chose our parents, country of origin, or culture of upbringing.

I see I've gone grandiose here i.e. very large scale. I suspect (on the basis of what's happened when I've really gone into other big educational theories) that though at first it looks as if this might only apply to big scales and the highest aspirations of education (e.g. what's the value of a whole university degree, not how best can I teach laboratory safety in one hour), this all may really apply minute to minute for virtually all topics; I just don't yet see how.


The standard tactic is to ban the word "understanding" from learning objectives on the grounds that it is hard to define it behaviourally. It is true that it is frequently used by teachers who are too lazy to analyse what they mean and how to test it. This cure however is almost as deadly. If you do ban "understanding" from your course objectives, you achieve testability but lose essential aspects of learning, including much of its value. In fact, you are acting out an extreme transmission theory of learning and adopting a totally anti-constructivist approach in which only the teachers' pre-planned goals are considered. Furthermore, the logical position is to permit only objectives that can be tested, and then only such teaching as promotes those effects that are in the objectives. So if you do not test for enjoyment, then you should strive to eliminate all enjoyment from your teaching; if you do not test for relevance to a person's career, then you must eliminate all relevance from your course; etc.

Recoiling from this rational but repulsive position, most of us must admit that some of the actually desired outcomes of the course are not going to be assessed, and probably are not going to be stated in objectives. This is consistent with the argument that learners necessarily cannot understand LOs fully in advance; and also that teachers can understand more (they can understand the concepts at least), but can only partially predict its relevance to each learner, since learners differ in in the context they bring to bear, and in the unbounded set of connections they may or may not make.

It seems better to a) face the fact that we may not be able to state all the benefits we hope for from a course, nor to assess their attainment. b) To try harder at assessing things we believe are important such as "understanding" e.g. (as Terri Buckner has pointed out: "explain, muster evidence, find examples, generalize, apply concepts, analogize, represent in a new way, and so on").


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