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So, how do we start applying these? We could just start making minor tweaks to existing practices (recommended), or we could redesign entire courses from scratch (not recommended). Either way, we should revisit our Learning Objectives or Outcomes.

Writing Learning Objectives that Motivate

Good learning objectives are actually very hard to write. There are countless articles online, but most focus on the cognitive aspects — what level of thinking in Bloom’s Cognitive domain (remember, understand, apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate) they use. This, of course, is important, and on a more practical level, is generally easy to assess (if students remember x, they should be able to answer the identification question; if they understand it, they should be able to write a short definition, etc.). This does not, however, capture the gold of learning.

Epistemologies and Identities

More than just a transfer of content, your course should share your field’s approach to seeing and acting in the world. This moves beyond cognition, to incorporate values, attitudes and behaviors (Krathwohl’s Affective domain: receive, respond, value, organize, characterize). Are your students simply documenting what you’re trying to teach, or are they actively growing from novice to expert in the field? And what does that entail?

Krathwohl Affective Domain

Krathwohl and Blooms’ Affective Domain (1964)

Gee (2005) describes it this way:

“Any domain of knowledge, academic or not, is first and foremost a set of activities and experiences. That is, domains of knowledge are special ways of acting and interacting in ways that produce and use the domain’s knowledge; they are special ways of seeing, valuing, and being in the world. Physicists do physics. They talk physics. And when they are being physicists, they see and value the world in a different way than do non-physicists. The same goes for good anthropologists, linguists, urban planners, army officers, doctors, artists, literary critics, and historians.”

The difficulties of Affective Domain learning objectives

Measuring how well a student can cognitively grasp a concept is considered fair game in education, and is somewhat easy to quantify objectively. Measuring students’ values, attitudes, and behaviors (apart from psychomotor behavior), is trickier, and seen by many as in the realm of brainwashing rather than education. And yet, it is the affective domain where the most influential, most passionate, most brilliant instructors and learners live. If learners are passionate about a topic, the cognitive challenges will be easier for them to overcome; if they don’t care about it, even the best teaching won’t reach them. Your teaching objectives then, should include increasing their valuing of the topic.

  • How can your course go about persuading students to care about a thing that you are passionate about, but that may not obviously connect to their prior life experiences. (Simonson & Maushak, 2001)
  • How can your course foster connection to students’ existing values, and build on those values without causing cognitive dissonance? (Festinger, 1962)

How do your learning objectives communicate these epistemologies?

In an ideal world, learning should happen in domain-specific experiences, through which students interact with the world with increasingly-refined domain-informed sensibilities. With this in mind, consider your course’s overall learning objectives, and how they teach not just the content, but the way that professionals in your field see and act in the world. Here are some questions for you to answer to help guide you in designing learning objectives:

  1. How can your course prepare students to view and act in the world from your field’s perspective (the epistemology of your field)?
  2. What are the most appropriate and practical domain-specific experiences that your students can have, given the resources and situational factors of your course?
  3. How close to real/authentic can you get in modifying other learning experiences?
  4. Every member of your field, including you, incorporates their own unique and particular set of lived experiences and values into their domain membership. How can your course activities foster connection between students’ current identities and lived experiences, and mentor them in integrating theirs into domain membership?


Apply to Your Course Copyright © by John Martin, Karin Spader, Julie Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

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