The past few posts on this blog have focused on learning goals and objectives. What are they? What is the difference? How do you establish them? As you develop your classes, there is a possibility you will find yourself thinking of objectives you want your students to meet, but are not necessarily tied to the subject you’re covering.
As you produce your list of learning goals and objectives, most of them are likely to focus on the content of the class and students’ abilities to work with that content – synthesizing it to form conclusions, applying it in different contexts, etc. How exactly you go about helping students to meet these objectives can force them to develop skills or knowledge that may not be tightly tied to the subject matter of your class. These skills are known as procedural objectives or goals.
Allow me to provide an example. Last semester I taught a class on insect pest management (IPM). The goals of the class generally summarize to “be able to figure out how to manage a pest insect.” Pest management is actually a very contentious issue, though; there are strongly conflicting opinions about the ecological harm caused by insecticides, the risks of biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the consequences of changing pest management approaches after a lengthy history of heavy reliance on insecticides. Teaching the basic evidence-based science without offering any exposure to the social contention and fear of novel techniques would leave out a major practical facet of pest management.
… useful skills the students practiced as they completed assignments that contributed to other learning objectives of the class.
To cover some of the less scientific learning objectives (e.g. recognizing multiple viewpoints, considering how history has framed where we are today, etc.) I set up a number of class assignments to promote student discussions where the students’ classmates can provide the differing viewpoints and backgrounds that I wanted to cover. These assignments forced the students to develop some other skills: lead in-class discussions, develop and defend an informed opinion on topics related to IPM, and clearly communicate scientific information. For the sake of discussion, let’s call these “procedural objectives.” They aren’t intrinsically tied to the discipline or subject that I was teaching, but were useful skills the students practiced as they completed assignments that contributed to other learning objectives of the class.
Earning Their Place On The Syllabus
Here’s where we can get into some teaching philosophy discussion: should these “procedural objectives” be listed among the class objectives? My supervisor and I agreed that yes, these objectives are important enough to be acknowledged for their own merit as objectives of the class. However, you could argue that someone could be an effective IPM practitioner (the ultimate goal of the class) without mastering leading classroom discussions. We opted to include the procedural goals because they are broadly transferrable skills. Leading class discussions builds skills in leadership and keeping on task, which can be important in any professional setting.
… yes, these objectives are important enough to be acknowledged for their own merit as objectives of the class.
There is a good chance that if you tackle active learning, there will be some “procedural objectives” that are essential to keep things running in your class. There are probably a variety of ways to approach these “procedural objectives,” but in my limited experience accomplishing them is a little easier if you think about them explicitly along with the other learning objectives. That way you can communicate to the students exactly what they’ll need to do to succeed.
Jamie Kopco is finishing his Ph.D. in entomology. Among other pedagogical tasks, he is teaching an undergrad/grad class, doing science outreach, and generally trying to foster a sense of curiosity and discovery.
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