Talking Teaching: How to format learning objectives to improve student learning

Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies. This month, we discussed learning objectives (LOs). In this blog, I’d like to discuss learning objectives and how they can be formatted to optimize student’s learning. 

The two articles we’d like to share with you this month:

What is an LO?

Sana et al. (2020) define LOs as “knowledge about specific information that students should learn by the end of a study session”. As an undergraduate student, I remember paying special attention to the learning objectives listed at the start of every lecture. I reasoned that this list outlined the key information I should learn and would likely be assessed. 

How do students use LOs?

My student approach to LOs is similar to that outlined by Osueke et al. (2018), where undergraduate science students were asked how they use LOs to study for assessments; 47.4% converted LOs into practice questions, 24.1% used LOs as a resource for study, 14.3% used LOs to self-assess their learning, and 13.5% simply looked over the LOs. Students were more likely to use LOs if they aligned with the assessment. Each student that answered the survey felt that the LOs aligned with the exam questions. These students reported that LOs helped them focus on the information they needed to study. Specifically, the LOs identified topics that students should learn in the course and topics that would be assessed on exams.

What’s the best format to present LOs?

Sana et al. (2020)  conducted a series of three laboratory experiments to iterate on learning objective presentation to students before reading a passage of text. Students then had their information retention assessed. The authors listed LOs for the reader “to 1) examine the effectiveness of LOs on retention of expository text, 2) evaluate a method to present LOs that optimizes learning, and 3) explain why this method is better than simply providing LOs in the form of traditional statements”. 

1. Experiment 1 compared no LOs with simple LOs, and found presenting LOs before reading the passage increased performance on the assessment. 

2. Experiment 2 compared traditional LO statements versus multiple-choice pretest questions, and found the latter increased performance on the assessment. 

3. Experiment 3 used a two by two between-subjects design to compare short-answer questions with multiple-choice questions, with and without feedback. They found the inclusion of feedback decreased performance on the assessment, regardless of the pretest format. 

Learning Objectives | Talking Teaching

Image credit: coolvector -

To summarize, presenting LOs as a pretest question without feedback improves students' retention of information. They concluded that pretesting encourages an active search for self-feedback during study, so by providing immediate corrective feedback, you short circuit this search. 

How applicable are these results?

The authors emphasize that converting all LOs to pretests with no feedback is premature. More research is required to explore the interaction of attention and motivation on pretest LOs and if the type of provided feedback affects learning outcomes. Some studies have suggested right/wrong feedback can help students identify their errors and knowledge gaps, and focus on seeking this information. This layer of metacognition was further highlighted with the authors noting that informing the students of the importance of and purpose of these pretest questions encouraged participants to pay attention to them. If you’ve intentionally designed something to benefit students, you should tell them so they can fully benefit. 

Join the discussion

How do you use LOs in your teaching? Do you link your LOs to assessment? Do you tell your students why you’ve designed specific elements?

Join us in the ADI: Educator Community on LinkedIn and let other educators know your thoughts!

Our online community is a hub for life sciences education in #highered, where you can share resources, ask questions, get feedback, and build meaningful relationships - across campus and across the globe!

Additional Resources:

How to Boost Metacognition in the Classroom »

How to Improve Digital Literacy in Course Design »

Photosensitivity and Visually Accessible Course Design »

How Can We Teach Anatomy Remotely? »

Artificial Intelligence in Education - Is personalized learning the future? »


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