How Do Clearly-Defined Learning Objectives Improve Student Performance?

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If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else,” said Lawrence J. Peter, a Canadian educator and hierarchiologist of the last century. When it comes to online learning, this principle is undeniably true.

When students are simply presented with material with no sense of why they are learning it or which parts they are required to remember, they will likely remember very little from their studies. It is therefore essential that professors of online courses identify specific learning objectives for each activity or assignment, and explicitly communicate these objectives to their students.

Here are 5 reasons why providing clearly defined learning objectives improves student performance, as explained by The Educational Value of Course-level Learning Objectives/Outcomes by Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center:

  1. Students learn better when they are aware of the type of knowledge they are expected to acquire.

    Cognitive psychologists have identified two distinct categories of knowledge: declarative knowledge, and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge refers to understanding and remembering facts and concepts (knowing what), whereas procedural knowledge refers to knowing how and when to apply certain skills and principles.

    For example, declarative knowledge would include knowing that “Force = Mass x Acceleration,” whereas procedural knowledge would include understanding how to apply that formula to a real situations. If the instructor does not state a learning objective for the physics lesson, students will not know whether they are expected to merely memorize the formula, or to also understand its application. In the absence of clearly defined learning objectives, students tend to assume that the more basic level of knowledge is sufficient, whereas the instructor might in fact have higher expectations in mind.

  2. Deliberate practice is a powerful form of learning.

    Research shows that students retain knowledge much better when they have specific goals to focus on while they practice. This deliberate practice is defined as “activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” When students have clear learning objectives in mind as they practice, they will know what information to pay most attention to.

  3. Students can reach higher levels of understanding when the learning is personalized to their individual levels.

    By providing different learning objectives for beginner students and advanced students, each student will be able to advance to the next level of understanding when he or she is ready. For example, the professor can tell beginner students that their learning objective is to memorize 5 basic physics formulas, whereas the advanced students can be required to understand the logic behind the formulas.

    Learning objectives for advanced students can also include more room for analysis, creativity, and exploration, while the beginners can focus on learning technicalities with direct guidance from the professor.

  4. Awareness of transfer as a learning objective increases the likelihood that students will acquire this skill.

    One of the key indicators of deep learning is transfer, a term used by cognitive scientists to refer to an individual’s ability to apply his or her knowledge to a wide variety of contexts, not just the context in which it was initially presented and learned. Students are more likely to be able to “transfer” their learning if their instructor explicitly states this as a learning objective and provides ample opportunities for practicing transfer throughout the course.

  5. Students develop metacognitive skills.

    Metacognition refers to the process of reflecting on how the mind learns and thinks. These skills develop naturally when students think about what they already know, what they need to know, how to acquire the knowledge that they need to know, and how to evaluate whether they are being successful in learning what they need to know. Self-monitoring and metacognition are integral parts of the learning process, and providing clearly defined learning objectives helps develop these skills.