Tag Archives: learning objectives

Formative Assessment in a World of Learning Outcomes

Consider this scenario: You’re teaching language arts to a middle school special ed class. The learning objective is to write a story about making something. While you go through the provided writing sample about children building a clubhouse, your students get more excited about the clubhouse than writing a story. They ask to build a clubhouse. Do you make them write the story or do you let them build a clubhouse first?

If you go with the clubhouse, you’re delaying writing the story and you may not have time to fulfill all the learning objectives embedded in your curriculum. On the other hand, if you decide, as I did, to build your lesson on your students’ spontaneous enthusiasm, you are choosing to write in additional learning objectives involving commitment, collaboration, and problem-solving before writing the story. And, you must alter your teaching plans to achieve them.

My decision was based on formative assessment or assessment for learning. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam wrote the classic definition of formative assessment in 1998:

….the term ‘assessment’ refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs.

This definition holds true for higher education even though Wiliam’s continuing work is with teachers in K-12. He emphasizes that many strategies can be successful as long as we remember “the big idea is to use evidence-based learning to adapt instruction to meet student needs.”  I encourage you to watch his exceptional talk, Assessment for Learning, below:

Education technology offers us valuable tools for assessment. Evidence-based programs can quickly adapt instruction based on feedback from student learning. These programs also help instructors alter their class instruction because aggregate data is available in real time. (see my earlier blog, What’s a Seventeen-Year-Old to Do?).

But there is a downside. Since, like all effective formative assessment, adaptive learning programs tie instruction and feedback to learning outcomes, the learning outcomes in adaptive programs are predetermined Formative assessment means changing student learning pathways–more material for a struggling student; less for an excelling student. But all pathways lead to the same goal.

The movement for student competencies and consistency in higher education also rests on predetermined learning outcomes. While these trends have merit, we need to be cautious and not allow them to get us entrenched in rigid practices, deterring instructors from going “off-script” and tapping into students’ enthusiasm and innovative ideas–these, too, are worthwhile in the learning environment. (When you look back, isn’t it the off-script instructors who influenced you the most?)

As we develop and use technology to get more precise evidence-based snapshots of student progress, we need to build in flexibility so that formative assessment based on student feedback can modify learning outcomes as well as learning pathways.

The Last 20%

Originally posted by Rochelle Diogenes on Acrobatiq.

When Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison wrote on Instagram (#harrisonfamilyvalues) that he was returning his sons’ participation trophies because they were awarded “for nothing,” he probably wasn’t aware that his values about the feedback his sons got resonate with the views of an educator halfway around the world.

Australian professor John Hattie found teacher feedback to be one of the top factors helping students bridge the gap between trying and achievement. His findings are based on meta-analyses of 50,000 studies involving over 200 million students.

What does high-quality feedback look like? It’s clear, dynamic, and specific so that students can address their weaknesses to attain their goals. A trophy for participation doesn’t do that. According to Hattie, worthwhile feedback  answers these questions:

Where am I going? Students need to have a clear understanding of what the goal is, how to achieve it, and its benefits. For Harrison’s sons, participation was a means of reaching the goal of excelling or winning in athletics. Getting a trophy before you reach your goal could actually undermine working towards achievement.

How am I going? Feedback should give students a realistic picture of their progress, what they have accomplished, and what they need to work on.

If Harrison’s sons had gotten productive feedback, it would have included acknowledgment of the skills they acquired and evaluation of specific skills they need to improve. Not having that kind of feedback robbed Harrison of the opportunity to discuss and practice skills with his sons. This type of progress report is extremely successful in moving students forward.

Where to next? This feedback illuminates learning pathways for students. When teachers outline specific steps such as engaging in new activities, working with peers, or just plain practice, they are showing faith in the student to do better. In this context, “I am not good at math” doesn’t hold. Instead, it’s “I didn’t understand this problem today.”  This approach leads students to forget they “failed” and focus on how to do better.

Notice that there is no mention of raising student self-esteem. It’s all about the task. According to Hattie, confidence and pride grow from achievement. Productive feedback is not personal; it’s individualized.

If, as Woody Allen says, “eighty percent of success is showing up,” then it’s the last 20% that gets you significant achievement.  Hattie reveals that any program or method of teaching can show some success—students will show some improvement from the beginning to the end of the year. But that doesn’t mean the program is the best one for your students.

Technology can offer the types of feedback Hattie advocates to help students conquer the challenges in that last 20%. To help your students reach the trophy level in their endeavors, here’s some questions on feedback to keep in mind when you evaluate a digital learning program:

  • Does it include pedagogically sound learning objectives?
  • Is there targeted feedback specific to skills throughout the program?
  • Is the program adaptive, providing new varied content pathways tailored to each student?
  • Does it share learning data with students and instructors in real time?

Learning Objectives in Higher Education

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.     Albert Einstein

Learning is a cognitive activity. According to the Psychology Dictionary, cognition encompasses “the mental processes in gaining knowledge and comprehension.”

In the 1950’s, the University of Chicago’s Benjamin Bloom invented a cognitive taxonomy which was embraced by American educators. Revised in 2001 by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl, the taxonomy became more dynamic, reflecting the interactivity of contemporary education contexts. The list has six categories. It moves from the simplest form of cognition, knowledge/remembering, to the most complex, synthesis/evaluation/creating.*

For educators, Bloom provided a scientific way to categorize learning. If educators could connect Bloom’s taxonomy to teaching and learning, they would have a much more sophisticated way of measuring instructional and student accomplishment.

At the same time that Bloom was creating his taxonomy, the idea of writing formal learning objectives in education was gaining traction. Bernard Bull does a great job blogging on the history of learning objectives   Learning objectives are statements that describe an act that can be measured. A learning objective always includes a verb and a specific goal to be achieved, showing learning through performance. Typical objectives assume “the student will be able to”:

  • Solve one-variable equations.
  • Describe the importance of audience in public speaking.
  • Compare the strategies of Lee and Grant during the Civil War.

K-12 uses cognitive categories and learning objectives to frame teaching, student content, and test questions. The core of the Common Core involves cognitive taxonomy and learning outcomes.

Learning objectives and their measurement are very concrete. They focus on cognitive growth in the present. So there is a contradiction when calls for accountability and job training require higher education institutions to develop learning objectives.

Colleges have traditionally provided students with a broad education meant to resonate in the future. And, they have set as their goals helping students become better people, responsible citizens in one way or another. The recent news about university responsibility in judging behaviors such as rapes on campus is rooted in this type of higher education mission.

We expect college graduates to be prepared for dealing with life outside their majors.We need to preserve the cultivation of this type of learning in higher education. Learning objectives may be reasonable and helpful in some curricula, but they are not the answer to creating a higher education environment that helps students succeed in life as well as work. We cannot allow learning objectives advocates to make learning all about what you can assess, what you can “see” now.

We need to resist the push in higher education to make the learning that can easily be measured the heart of 21st century education. We need to find ways to emphasize and reward learning that “can’t be counted” as much as that which “can be counted.”


Bloom’s Original/Revised Description
Knowledge/Remembering Recall facts and basic concepts.
Comprehension/Understanding Connect concepts through interpretation and organization.
Application/Applying Solve problems using acquired knowledge.
Analysis/Analyzing Use evidence, knowledge and data to draw conclusions, infer, and conclude.
Synthesis/Evaluating Create a plan or product based on elaborated ideas/Present opinions based on criteria.
Evaluation/Creating Assess based on criteria/Present new ideas or solutions by innovative organization of evidence