Exhibiting the Avant Garde: Rare Primary Sources as Pedagogy

[Guest post by Molly Warnock, Assistant Professor, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University]

The library is often called the lab of the humanities. In my experience, the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries embraces this role. I collaborate regularly with the Libraries’ staff to encourage students not only to use library resources to conduct their research but also to use the physical space to present their findings. In several of my undergraduate art history courses, students curate an exhibition as one of their major assignments. This article provides an overview of my collaboration with the Sheridan Libraries and describes a model that my colleagues are considering adopting for their own course projects.

The collaboration began when I discovered the extensive modern and avant-garde collections owned by the Libraries, which boast vast reserves of journals, rare exhibition catalogues, and artists’ books, as well as posters, pamphlets, and other ephemera. I Students viewing library exhibitwanted to integrate these materials into my courses, and started by setting aside a day or two every semester to visit Special Collections. Now virtually all of my courses at all levels include multiple sessions of this sort. For example, my introductory survey “Modern Art, 1880-1950,” includes thematic visits devoted to such topics as Futurist typography, the role of journals and little magazines in the spread of experimental practices, and utopian urbanism. These visits allow students to see and in many cases handle rare primary materials, adding substantively to our discussions in the classroom. They are almost always surprised to discover the extent of our collections.

The curatorial seminars that I have developed over the past six years are specifically aimed at increasing student engagement with these important library holdings. Each course is in certain respects a traditional seminar, focused on some area of twentieth-century practice. We have weekly readings, look at digital slideshows, and discuss various case studies. At the same time, however, students immerse themselves in a semester-long, hands-on curatorial project centered on one particular aspect of our subject matter. The first such course, “Surrealism,” produced a survey of Surrealist journals (“Surrealism at Mid-Century”), while the second, “The ‘Long Sixties’ in Europe,” turned the spotlight on the library’s wealth of Lettrist books, journals, posters, photographs, and film scripts, among other items (“Presenting: Lettrism”). Additional iterations of “The ‘Long Sixties’” have focused on the library’s recently expanded trove of materials relating to the avant-garde group Cobra (“Asger Jorn and Cobra”) and on the Paris-based journal Robho (“Robho in Context”). Student contributions drive all stages of the project, including: researching and studying the available holdings; crafting a final object list; writing exhibition labels for the selected works; and designing the exhibition layout. At the exhibition opening, the students serve as docents, guiding interested members of the Hopkins community through the show.

Students showing exhibit to library patronsCollectively curating an exhibition in one semester means negotiating difficult time constraints. I start my course planning by identifying a long list of objects relevant to my course. Throughout this period, I consult extensively with Don Juedes, the dedicated librarian for History of Art. We then meet with Mark Pollei and Alessandro Scola of the Conservation and Preservation team to ensure that the pre-selected objects are stable enough to be handled repeatedly and determine vulnerabilities that would have to be taken into consideration for exhibition—whether, for instance, a particular book or journal is especially light sensitive, or can only be opened halfway. Once the semester is underway, students begin working on the exhibition immediately. Within the first week, we’re in Special Collections, where students get their first peek of the objects cleared for exhibition; each selects a few to research individually. I provide some initial context, but encourage them to choose based on their broader interests or curiosity about specific items.

One of the course goals is to teach students how to interpret primary materials using different research strategies. Their first assignment is to outline a research plan for each of their chosen objects. Don introduces the students to library resources and teaches them the skills needed to conduct their research: for example, how to meaningfully generate and delimit searches in our online catalogue and how to navigate various databases and bibliographies. They have to locate relevant materials using the strategies Don has shared with them, and indicate how they plan to build an argument from these sources. This can be quite challenging in the case of objects that have not been studied extensively by scholars to date. I provide feedback and encourage them to think broadly about different angles of attack, from the more obvious (researching the artist or author) to the less immediately apparent (researching a gallery’s broader exhibition agenda).

By mid-semester, we are all back in Special Collections, where the students present their objects and recommend specific display options, based on their research findings and the various larger stories we might wish to tell. We then move into the most exciting—and difficult—phase: experimenting with different installation plans and whittling down our final object selection. We mark off spaces equivalent to the various display cases and physically move things around until we feel we’ve arrived at a coherent, visually compelling narrative.Students making adjustments to exhibit objects The Conservation and Preservation team stop by again to consult with us about our display concept, and then spend roughly a month and a half preparing the featured materials, building customized cradles, and installing the objects. The students use that same period to produce and collectively edit the banner text and individual object labels. The official opening usually takes place in the penultimate week of the semester and serves as a celebratory capstone for the course as a whole.

As an instructor, it is deeply satisfying to see how seriously the students take one another’s research, and how effectively a collaborative project of this sort can help to build community. I find myself continually refining my pedagogical approach to facilitate this. One crucial step was simply to limit the class size to a maximum of ten students. I’ve also explored the potential of new technological platforms to facilitate more lateral processes of peer-to-peer discussion and group editing. For example, having students generate and refine all exhibition-related texts in Google Docs allows me to afford class participants greater responsibility for the finished products, while still tracking individual contributions. This can be awkward at first, as students may not have prior experience giving one another constructive criticism. But they quickly learn that robust peer critique results in a better overall outcome: an exhibition that represents all of their contributions.

In their course evaluations, students rate this experience highly positively. One described “the opportunity to curate an exhibition and work with objects from the library’s collections” as “truly special,” while another called it “unlike anything I had done for a course at Hopkins before,” adding: “Interacting with one another so regularly to work on the exhibition also built a great sense of community among the students.” A third noted: “I really enjoyed getting to spend so much time physically with all these artifacts, and doing research on objects JHU owned.”

This project has also deepened my working relationship with Don Juedes. Don’s assistance has been instrumental at every stage. Early on, he helped me to put together an exhibition proposal and worked with the exhibition committee to significantly expedite the review process, which had previously taken several months. (Based on the success of previous course- related curatorial project, the Libraries now dedicate a regular slot in the calendar to our exhibitions.) He has also worked closely with library staff from multiple departments to streamline workflows and pin down a project timeline.

At the same time, Don and I consult regularly about the collections and often tailor new acquisitions in my research area to the courses I plan to teach and the kind of student-curated exhibitions that might accompany them.Students working to prepare exhibit For the students, there is an added benefit: working closely with Don teaches them the multi-faceted role that libraries play in supporting the scholarly community. They see that libraries are not just passive repositories but have a highly active custodial and, indeed, curatorial role, assembling and caring for the materials that enable forward-looking research and teaching. They learn the importance of developing relationships with library staff that can provide complementary expertise and assist in the discovery process. The students in these curatorial seminars often become avid library patrons, returning to use primary sources for other courses and independent research projects.

My partnership with the library has changed how I teach and opened up new learning experiences for students. I feel incredibly fortunate that the Libraries’ leadership and outstanding staff at all levels fully grasp the importance of teaching with objects and so generously support pedagogical innovation and collaboration in this area.

Molly Warnock, Assistant Professor
History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

In addition to critical surveys of modern and contemporary art, Molly Warnock’s recent and forthcoming undergraduate courses include several seminars with curatorial components, each focused on particular aspects of twentieth-century practice and culminating in an exhibition of journals and other ephemera from the Special Collections of the Sheridan Libraries. Recent graduate courses have explored the philosophical underpinnings of art history as a modern discipline; problems in abstraction; theories of painting and subjectivity; and the concept of an aesthetic medium, among other topics.

Image Source: Don Juedes

Empowering Students through Guided Reflection

[Guest post by Pamela Sheff, Director, Center for Leadership Education, Johns Hopkins University]

lighthouseEach spring, I teach a course called Culture of the Engineering Profession for the Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School. Primarily through discussions and projects, students in this class investigate what it means to be an engineer, identify contemporary issues in engineering, and consider the ethical guidelines of the engineering profession. The majority of students in the Spring 2019 class were Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering majors with a Mechanical Engineering student mixed in. This semester, I decided to experiment somewhat with guided reflection, a metacognitive practice that was new for many of these students.

One of the goals of the course is to help students strengthen their communication skills; therefore I leverage a great deal of class discussion including a requirement for students to lead a discussion at least once during the semester. Several times during the semester, I guided the students in reflecting not only on the quality of their discussions, but also on the culture of the classroom as a whole. I raised questions such as the following: What is working well? What could be changed? What values do students want in the classroom? From this reflective exercise the students generated a rubric listing characteristics including accountability, respect, and transparency. Every couple of weeks, I asked them to reflect on how they were doing as a group by reviewing the list.

After about six weeks, I noticed the group coming to consensus on what they felt was working in our classroom practice and what needed to change.  For example, one idea suggested by the group was to speak purposefully during discussions.  Students should not talk simply to be heard, but to move the discussion forward. Results included higher quality discussions and improved leadership skills.

The success of using a rubric to guide class discussions led me to continue using reflection to help students evaluate their major projects.  We talked during class about effective project criteria, for example, and what they should look for in the posters they would see at the course-wide poster fair.  The teaching assistants in the class then compiled the list of suggestions, which helped the students create strong written critiques after the fair. I talked with the class about how to assign grades to the team discussions they had been leading. Again, we worked in class to develop a list of criteria to consider and, the TAs and I developed the grading rubric. I then gave the students an opportunity to comment on the rubric before it was finalized. I also made the decision to allow students to grade their own projects according to the rubric. If I agreed with the grade they chose, the grade stood.  If not, I modified the grade. In a class of 29 students, I only had to lower two grades.  I did raise three grades, in cases where the students were unduly critical of their efforts.

The results of continuous guided reflection? The projects were the best I have ever seen in this class, and I could not have been more pleased. I attribute the high quality of work to students taking ownership of the process. It pushed them to live up to the standards they defined for themselves, and in many cases, go beyond them.  Providing space for students to reflect on what they were working towards led them to act more purposefully and, in turn, allowed me to give them agency over the classroom. I am thrilled with the way this approach worked out and am planning to use it again in future semesters.

Pamela Sheff, Associate Teaching Professor and Director
Center for Leadership Education, Johns Hopkins University

Pamela Sheff is an award-winning writer and marketing communications consultant, with a wealth of experience developing marketing, public relations and communications strategies for clients ranging from start-ups to large corporate, institutional and government organizations. Now a full-time lecturer in the Center for Leadership Education, Pam has taught business communications for private companies and directed the Writing Program at Goucher College.

Image Source: Pixabay

Lunch and Learn: Community-based Learning

On Wednesday, December 12, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn for the 2018-2019 academic year. Shawntay Stocks, Assistant Director of Engaged Scholarship, Center for Social Concern; and Dora Malech, Assistant Professor, Writing Seminars; presented on Community-based Learning.

Graphic illustration of Community-based learning process.

Shawntay Stocks opened with a presentation on community-based learning (CBL) at Johns Hopkins speaking about how her organization—the Center for Social Concern (CSC)—can assist faculty who wish to use the CBL pedagogical model in their courses (see slides here). The Center for Social Concern is the part of the Homewood Student Affairs division of Johns Hopkins University that focuses on volunteerism and community engagement; Community-based Learning is just one of their programs.

Stocks described CBL as “…a pedagogical model that connects classroom-based work with meaningful community involvement and exchange.  Within the context of equitable partnership, community organizations and students mutually benefit from the CBL experience both by meeting course objectives and addressing community-identified goals.  Students may engage with groups including, but not limited to: nonprofits, government agencies, grassroots collectives, and other educational institutions.” She noted that collaboration is the key for faculty, students, and community groups in pursuing mutual goals and course objectives, and that faculty must provide adequate preparation for their students to engage in CBL. The Center for Social Concern offers training for faculty, stipends to support faculty and community partners, and provides a TA for courses using CBL. At the core CBL is an equal partnership. The community partner may not have an advanced academic degree, but does have expertise, relationships, and contextual knowledge to bring to the table.

Students benefit because CBL allows them to connect theory to real-life experience and to think critically, in our case, about urban life in Baltimore. They have the opportunity to work collaboratively and collectively and gain an understanding of diverse perspectives. The skills they develop will be transferable to other aspects of their lives. Students often transform their thinking about the city in positive ways as they gain knowledge through reflection.

How can faculty ensure a successful CBL experience? Stocks emphasized the importance of “doing your homework” in terms of the community partner. You should think about these questions: What are the areas of commonality? How do your academic goals and their programmatic goals overlap? What are the expectations on both sides? What types of training will students need for a successful partnership? What are the logistics for partnership meetings? What commitment is being made (e.g., one semester, multiple semesters or academic years) and what is the potential for an ongoing partnership? What type of action are you planning for your CBL course—research, service, community building, advocacy, dialog?

Critical for the student experience are reflection and assessment. Reflection deepens learning. Instructors must allow for students to express their discomfort, frustration, anxiety, anger as well as their positive, affirmative feelings. It’s important to have conversations around the emotional impact of their experiences and acknowledge difficulties. Assessment of learning can be done through journaling, discussion, essays, or presentations.

At the end of the course there should be a project evaluation that includes the community partner. How did the partnership work? Were the learning goals accomplished? What would make the partnership work better? What were the pitfalls? How can these be navigated next time?  CBL courses may be iterative processes and such evaluation will allow for continuous improvement of the experience for all involved.

Dora Malech won the Crenson-Hertz Award for Community Based Learning and Participatory Research from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Concern in 2016. For the past several years she has worked with CSC, partnering with the Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS) program to give her Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars students a CBL experience. The WBS website has more information on this partnership. Malech shared her experiences with developing and teaching her course, Poetry and Social Justice.

Malech teaches undergraduate and graduate students now, but previously, at the University of Iowa, she directed a K-12 outreach program, which gave her an appreciation for community partnerships. In thinking about CBL, an important component for her is the concept of cultural humility, which comes from social work, a profession that emphasizes diversity and cultural competency. This idea of respecting the different experience of others and being open to learning from them works well for those interested in implementing CBL.

When she was first considering CBL, she made a lot of phone calls to prospective partners. Malech recommends meeting face to face, having coffee, getting to know the person. She ended up partnering with Patrice Hutton from the Writers in Baltimore Schools program. The program starts with Middle School students who participate in “in-school, after-school, and summer programming that builds skills in literacy and communication while creating a community of support for young writers.” Malech’s Writing Seminars students worked with Baltimore City high school students who had been program participants.

For the students on both sides, it is important to frame the relationship as a two-way transaction. The high school students have the experience of growing up in Baltimore City. They have cultural wealth and knowledge, and can articulate the community concerns. These students are college bound, but university culture is very much an abstraction for them. The JHU students may know nothing about inner-city life; the high school students give them the benefit of their urban experience, while the JHU students can help break down the mystery of what college life will be like for their high school partners.

Malech is explicit with her students about the course requirements. Participation in events outside of class time is mandatory—these include field trips, interview assignments, literary readings. Students are expected to get to these events on their own. Purchase of a Maryland Transit Administration CharmCard is recommended, and students should become familiar with public transportation such as local buses, light rail and the MARC train to DC. Due to logistics (the high school students are coming from all across Baltimore City), and to the high school students’ expressed preference, the class meetings are held on the JHU campus.

Malech said her role is to be explicit that the text is the community itself and that the students will build it together in the classroom. An on-going class blog—Poetry and Power—captures student writings. From the web site: “POETRY & POWER is the website and blog of “Poetry & Social Justice,” a Community Based Learning class that brings 15-20 Baltimore City high school students and 15- 20 Johns Hopkins University undergraduate students together to explore the intersection of poetry and social justice. They’ll write and read poetry together, engage with visiting writers, interview local poets and activists, and hold public performances of their own.”

As Stocks emphasized, Malech also views critical reflection as a key component for CBL. She uses the DEAL Model for Critical Reflection from Patti Clayton’s web site PHC Ventures (Mission: To build capacity for and generate best practices around community-engaged teaching, learning, and scholarship.), which Malech recommends as a great resource for those engaging in CBL.

A discussion followed the presentations. Stocks gave examples of different models of CBL. In one case a STEM faculty member and his class developed course modules to augment STEM programming at Margaret Brent Middle School. She fielded questions about whether it would be possible for Engineering capstone courses to use CBL with identified partners, specifically whether Civil Engineering students might partner with city agencies to identify and resolve infrastructure issues. This is an intriguing possibility that may be pursued with faculty and deans in the Whiting School of Engineering.

A question was posed about how to get departmental buy-in and funding for CBL courses. Malech noted that she had to prove that the concept was pedagogically sound and not overwhelming for the students. Strong positive feedback from the students showed that this was a high-impact teaching model. She said that she worked very hard to make the course a success. Getting positive publicity can be a strong incentive for department backing. Media attention acts as a “witness” to the process and as pressure for the administration to continue a project. She also presented at conferences and made the connection between strong writing and community engagement. Malech stated that culture change is an uphill battle where positive community feedback can really help. Being flexible and willing to scale up or down is important as well. The JHU President’s Office is advocating for community engagement, which may also be useful in getting departmental approval.

Stocks reminded us that CSC has resources for faculty and can assist even if someone wants to start on a small scale and build up to greater community engagement. Mike Reese, who uses CBL in his Sociology courses (focused on Baltimore City) noted that CSC had helped him get a JHU van to transport students for field work assignments. Stocks referenced the CSC website page for faculty wanting to use CBL—there are resources listed. She invited interested faculty to come have a conversation and learn more.

A question was asked about how a course could be restructured to include a CBL component. Faculty who have implemented CBL agreed that the activities must be the core course fabric. Traditional assignments can be swapped out for CBL assignments; class time can be used, or time outside of class can be substituted depending on the activity. Both the Center for Social Concern and the Center for Educational Resources can assist faculty with course planning.

Several participants who have used CBL in their courses stressed the importance of structuring and scaffolding the experience for students to assure that they buy into the concept. Malech emphasized that students should be prepared for the fact that there will be a certain amount of chaos inherent in the program, and that interpersonal relationships can be challenging. That is part of any real-world experience, but if students are prepared, they will be able to adapt. Another faculty CBL user noted that it is never a majority of students who feel “unsettled” by the realities of city life and partnership, but for those who are it is important to keep communication lines open and be flexible. And someone else noted that the “chaos factor” is also part of the equation for faculty and doesn’t go away even after multiple experiences offering CBL courses. In her experience, the chaos is well worth the meaningful, long-term impact for students. Malech commented, “That’s what college should be all about.”

Ahmed Ibrahim, Senior Education Research Consultant in the Center for Educational Resources, has been analyzing data on CBL courses taught at JHU from 2015 to 2017. He shared that students indicated that the best aspect of CBL courses is the personal interaction. Students asked for negative aspects made comments when the course was not well-structured.

Mike Reese, Director of the Center for Educational Resources asked Stocks and Malech what the best thing about CBL has been for them. Stocks answered that she enjoys creating CBL partnerships and wants to further engage faculty in a CBL learning community. For Malech, it has been the publishing and presenting as an educational expert outside her field of poetry. In terms of the learning process, she has come to think differently about course content. While originally she was focused on social justice and lived experience for the high school students, they challenged her to allow them to be creative writers. She’s appreciated the chance to be more open about her own assumptions of what the community partner wants and needs.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Center for Social Concern, Community-based Learning web site: https://studentaffairs.jhu.edu/socialconcern/programs/community-based-learning/

 

Things I learned when I designed and taught my first undergraduate course

Today we have a guest blogger. Adaeze Wosu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2017, she was one of two teaching assistants who received the Student Assembly’s Teaching Assistant Recognition Award at the School of Public Health. In 2018, she was again recognized with this honor. Ms. Wosu obtained a BA in Public Health Studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a Master of Public Health from Boston University.

 

Large light bulb surrounded by small-scale symbols of pursuits in the arts and sciences. Light blue images on dark blue background.Throughout graduate school (both as a Master’s and Doctoral student), I have worked as a Teaching Assistant for several graduate-level courses—leading lab sections, facilitating discussions, holding office hours, developing assessments, and grading. I have also served as a section instructor for an undergraduate epidemiology course. However, I had never taught my own course until January 2018, when I developed a one-credit undergraduate intersession course on the increasing burden of non-infectious diseases (e.g., heart disease, cancers, diabetes) in Africa.

Although my course is focused on the African continent, it is noteworthy that heart disease and cancers are the two leading causes of death in the United States. Until my sophomore year of college, I was largely unaware that there were preventive measures (e.g., exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep) that individuals can take to avert (or at least delay) the onset of these diseases. Learning about how to prevent these diseases was one of the epiphanies of my undergraduate education, and continues to inspire my research and teaching as a doctoral student.

The training I received in the annual three-day Teaching Institute organized by the Johns Hopkins University Teaching Academy helped prepare me for this experience. The Institute’s modules on backward-design helped me focus course lectures, discussions, and in-class activities on what students should gain from each session and the course as a whole, rather than simply filling time with content. Other modules on preparing for the first day of class, active learning, fostering an inclusive learning environment, and creating effective assessments were also valuable.

My course had an enrollment of eleven students—small but heterogeneous—with wide-ranging majors and interests, diverse cultural backgrounds, and at different levels of their college education. By the end of the course, I wanted students to have a general understanding of (1) the social, demographic, and economic factors driving the rise of these diseases on the African continent; (2) the biological mechanisms involved in these diseases; and (3) individual- and population-level approaches to prevention and control of these diseases.

I learned a lot from the process of developing this course as well as my interactions with students. Below, I have summarized, in eight points, some of what I learned and what was re-enforced for me through this process:

  1. Points of disagreement are great learning opportunities for both students and instructor. At the beginning of the course, I urged students to voice disagreements or objections that they had about course concepts, so we could discuss them as a group. The situations where students actively and strongly disagreed provided great teaching moments for clarifying and reinforcing important ideas. It made me appreciate the skill and tact required to factually and respectfully respond to misstatements or misconceptions without making students feel like they are being shut down. It was helpful to think through potential scenarios of disagreement beforehand, and how they could be handled. With practice, comfort with these scenarios grows.
  2. I learned to be comfortable with admitting when I did not know or was unsure about the answer to a student’s question. As a graduate teaching assistant, I had the luxury of referring students to an experienced faculty member if I encountered a particularly challenging question. In my course, this was not an option. I tried as much as possible to anticipate questions that would arise, but there were occasional questions to which I did not readily have answers. In such cases, I did not hesitate to tell the student that I did not have the answer at that moment. If I promised to look up the answer, then I did so, and got back to the student. For any questions that could potentially eat up class time or were beyond the scope of the course, my approach was to direct students to resources that could provide further insight. Admitting what you don’t know is all right.
  3. It is important to be as explicit as possible about expectations for assessments, and then be even more explicit. The writing-intensive courses I have assisted in teaching over the last seven years have for the most part involved public health instruction at the graduate level. It did not occur to me that undergraduate students would need substantial guidance regarding citations and what might count as credible sources for writing assignments. After I wrote what I thought were clear instructions for the final assignment, I found that students needed me to be even more explicit. With a diverse cohort of students in the class, from freshmen to seniors and from a range of disciplines, I could not make sweeping assumptions about familiarity with formatting requirements or with how to gather reputable sources for a research paper.
  4. Your enthusiasm and motivations for teaching are important and infectious. Your excitement shows through your body language and disposition from the moment you walk into the classroom until the final day. Your passion for the topic communicates to students why you care, and why they should care. As much as possible, I tried to make the content practical and applicable so that students could see how what they were learning extended beyond the classroom. I found that sharing my motivations for teaching the course helped me connect with students.
  5. Early opportunities for students to inform course direction will save you time and foster a more enjoyable student experience. Early in the course, I solicited feedback from students. This helped me identify what was working/not working, what aspects of the course the students enjoyed, and what they wanted to learn. Their comments led me to introduce one of the course units earlier than I had originally planned. Students also made me aware of additional helpful resources, which I incorporated (e.g., one student shared a YouTube video demonstration of what it feels like to breathe with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I plan to use these materials in future iterations of the course.
  6. Don’t be afraid to use media (e.g., short movies, documentaries) to make your point. I had to think creatively about using educational videos, documentaries, and even movie and television clips to illustrate points during the lectures. When I felt a video or cartoon conveyed some idea more clearly than didactic lecturing, I included that medium in the day’s lecture. At first, I worried that students would consider these as “faux lecturing” or just filling up time. Instead, students embraced these modalities and found them helpful for putting complex concepts into relatable terms. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
  7. Standing and walking around the class as you teach is a great way to get in a few hours of exercise! And if your class sessions are 3 hours long like mine, allow breaks so that students can stretch and get in some exercise as well.
  8. Finally, do not underestimate how much time is needed to prepare lectures, and activities for the different class sessions. For me, this was the hardest point of transition from a teaching assistant to an instructor. Even for a topic such as mine, where substantial resources exist, it took time to read and digest journal articles that I wanted to incorporate into lectures, to identify good media examples (e.g., videos, news articles and documentaries), to properly insert citations so that students could refer to them when needed), and to plan and design engaging in-class discussions and activities. While preparing for lectures, I sometimes longed for my teaching assistant days when material was already prepared and organized—all I had to do was review before each course section or office hour. Nevertheless, the opportunity to teach my own course gave me immense fulfillment. As an instructor, I was able to create the classroom experience I desired on a topic that I am extremely passionate about.

Adaeze Wosu, PhD Candidate
Department of Epidemiology, Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Using Backward Design for Course Planning

In all the years the Innovative Instructor has been blogging, we have not had a post dedicated to the concept of Backward Design. It’s long past time to correct this omission.

Diagram showing the three phases of Backward Design: Identify desired results, Determine acceptable evidence, Plan learning experiences and instruction.Backward Design is a framework for course design. With Backward Design an instructor starts course planning by identifying desired learning outcomes with the articulation of course goals and learning objectives. Assessment of those goals and objectives is determined, and finally, appropriate learning activities and instruction are developed.

Traditionally, faculty have approached course design by considering teaching the content first, striving to fit material into a set number of lectures and/or in-class activities, then developing assignments and tests, and finally grading students. This approach focuses on what the teacher wants to do, so it is instructor-centric.

The term Backward Design comes from starting course planning by thinking about what the instructor wants students to know and be able to do at the end of the course and working backward from there. In spite of the name, Backward Design is forward thinking—promoting intentional planning to create assessments and course activities that support the desired learning outcomes. Backward Design is student-centric in that the process starts by thinking about what students should be able to do.

Backward design focuses on the process of learning, encouraging the instructor to think intentionally about how in-class activities and assessment will ensure that the course goals and learning objectives are met. Faculty may find it challenging to think about the learning process instead of course content. They are experts in the latter, but may not be comfortable with the former. Backward Design helps instructors determine what material is necessary for students to meet the stated learning objectives. This makes it easier to decide what content to include and what is not as important. It is more efficient as well. When an instructor is clear about the desired student learning outcomes, assessing those outcomes, and determining the class activities and related course materials needed to obtain those outcomes will be clearer as well.  Another benefit of using Backward Design is that students appreciate the inherent transparency. When an instructor shares course goals and objectives, their students know what is expected of them. The alignment of learning objectives and learning assessments gives students clarity.

Instructors planning a course should ask themselves three questions:

  1. What do you want students to be able to do? (Course Learning Goals and Objectives)
  2. How will you measure if students can do that? (Aligned Assessment)
  3. How will you prepare students for assessments? (Design Instruction)

Writing good course learning goals (expectations of what students should be able to do by the end of the course) and effective learning objectives (explicit statements that describe what the students will be able to do at the end of each class or course module) is the first step in the Backward Design process. (See previous Innovative Instructor blog posts Writing Course Learning Goals and Writing Effective Learning Objectives.)

Next, what evidence is needed to determine that students have met the course goals? The performance tasks or assessments chosen should be appropriate to the level of the course. Bloom’s taxonomy is a useful tool for aligning the level of the course with appropriate assessment. (See the Innovative Instructor post A Guide to Bloom’s Taxonomy.)  For example, for an introductory level course, course goals are more likely to focus on remembering and understanding. Tests/exams that focus on asking students to identify, define, label, list, order (remembering) or calculate, describe, discuss, summarize, explain (understanding) will be appropriate. In a senior level seminar or design course students might be assigned papers, comprehensive projects, or creative tasks where they must argue, assess, debate, evaluate, defend (evaluation) or compose, construct, design, hypothesize, show, write (creation). Learning objectives, related to units or modules within the course, may be assessed by quizzes, homework assignments, problem sets, or short papers depending on the level of the course. Self-assessments and student reflections may also be useful.

Finally, appropriate instruction can be designed for the course. Instruction should be tailored to ensure that students are prepared for assessments. Keep in mind that the more engaged students are, the more likely it is that they will learn. Active learning strategies help ensure student engagement.

Backward Design can be an iterative process.  As you develop your assessments you may find you need to refine your objectives.  Similarly, as you design your instruction you may generate creative ideas on how to assess students that lead you to change your original assessment plan.

Course instruction may take a number of different formats—lectures, seminars, labs, discussion sessions, studio and design classes, research or project-oriented studies to name a few. Other variables include class size and room arrangements. For courses with large enrollments scheduled in auditoriums, lecturing tends to be used more frequently. But lectures that include active learning strategies such as the effective use of clickers, think-pair-share activities, and peer learning will more likely engage students. For labs and smaller courses, consider using strategies such as authentic learning, case studies, team-based learning, community-based or project-based learning to engage students.

Adopting a new strategy for course design may seem daunting, but Backward Design offers a more efficient, transparent, and effective approach for instructors and their students. By focusing on learning outcomes rather than course content, instructors using Backward Design may improve both student learning and their teaching.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backward_design

Thinking about Accessibility Part 2

Four universal signs for disabilities: wheelchair access, hearing access, captioning, visual accession. Signs are white on blue background.Last week ‘s post summarized the first part of an important article by Anne-Marie Womack, Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi, College Composition and Communication, February 2017. Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, encourages instructors to rethink accommodation as normative rather than an exception to a rule.

The second part of the essay focuses on creating an accessible syllabus both in theory and in practice by “moving from syllabus as contract to syllabus as accommodation.” This can be accomplished in a number of ways, starting by not limiting the notion of accommodation to a paragraph stating the institutional disability policy. Syllabi are often heavy on text and present inflexible policies written in a punitive and/or defensive tone. Womack suggests instead that instructors strive to create accessible documents that engage students with “cooperative language” and flexibility in assignments. She does acknowledge that it is important to consider the particular student audience in designing a syllabus—one solution doesn’t fit all. Instead, she suggests three strategies.

The first strategy is Creating Accessible Document Design. Reducing the amount of text in your syllabus is the primary consideration. Womack starts with the boilerplate policies that may be required by the institution, school, or department. Such information may be reduced to basics, linked to, or included at the end in an appendix. Other information can be provided during the semester as it is needed, e.g., assignment specifics, writing prompts.

How the text is formatted can make a big difference—Womack suggests trading some text for accessible images. This will necessitate the creation of alternative text (alt text) to describe the image for those who use screen readers. She suggests that alt text be “focused on data, not extraneous visual details.” Since images can introduce color that may not be visible to all readers, there are guidelines for best practices. (I’ve included some resources for creating accessible images and documents at the end of this post.) Womack shows examples of how she converted her syllabus from text heavy to accessible by using images, blocks of text, bulleted lists, and icons, and increasing the amount of white space. Using a larger font size and a san serif font will also improve readability. Your goal is to “make the syllabus user-friendly” because you want your students to use it. Other tips include creating a table of contents for improved navigation, making internal hyperlinks to connect items within the syllabus, using headings to establish hierarchy, bolding text to emphasize key ideas.

The second strategy Womack advocates is Engaging Students with Cooperative Language. You want to convey “approachability and empathy” rather than making students feel uncomfortable requesting accommodations. Don’t focus on negative consequences and punitive rules. Instead look at inclusive practices in your syllabus as a means to engage student cooperation.

Womack suggests beginning with an “inclusive learning statement” and offers an example:

Your success in this class is important to me. We will all need accommodations because we all learn differently. If there are aspects of this course that prevent you from learning or that form barriers to your inclusion, please let me know as soon as possible. Together we’ll develop strategies that can enable you to succeed in the course.

I encourage you to visit the Office of Disability Services to determine how you could improve your learning as well. If you need official accommodations, you have a right to have these met. There is also a range of resources on campus, including the Writing Center, Tutoring Center, and Academic Advising Center. (Figure 5, p.513).

Further, she gives examples of positive versus punitive language, commands versus invitations, and cooperative versus paternalistic language.

The third strategy is labeled Empowering Students through Flexible Course Plans. Womack saw that “traditional accommodations, such as longer time and adaptable assessment, provide a starting point to improve course practices.” Citing a number of research studies, she states that students are more motivated to learn when they feel they have autonomy. Womack suggests ways in which instructors can give students control. She discusses allowing students flexibility in deadlines. Her approach combines student-set and instructor-set deadlines, which allows an extended time-frame but prevents students from falling behind. Low-stakes writing assignments and incremental assignments may also provide flexibility. Minimal grading for some of this work is recommended. Womack also examines building flexibility into grading distributions. She focuses on those which work well for her writing courses, including contract grading where a system of assessment is negotiated. While this aspect of flexibility may be more difficult to incorporate into large lecture courses, the point is that assessments and grading should be carefully considered. Allowing students to drop the lowest grade in a series of quizzes or homeworks is an easy means of allowing students flexibility and control in a larger class.

In concluding Womack reminds us that accommodation does not give disabled students an unfair advantage; “it is more likely all students have been given an unfair disadvantage through inaccessible pedagogy.” We should look at the “best versions of accommodation” as a way of teaching inclusively to a diverse audience and adapting in response to individual needs.

While Womack offers some good examples in her essay, there are some great resources with “how-to” guides available. Womack created a website at Tulane University on making an accessible syllabus that frequently cited, but alas, no longer “accessible.” However, you can view an archived image of the site here.

If you are someone who likes video tutorials, the University of Minnesota Accessible U has a series of video tutorials on creating an accessible syllabus and making accessible documents and accessible PDFs.

You will also want to check out the University of Colorado Boulder Universally Designed Syllabus Materials website “to employ best practices when creating a course syllabus.” Some of the material is UC system-specific, but much of the information is widely applicable.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Thinking about Accessibility Part 1

Four universal signs for disabilities: wheelchair access, hearing access, captioning, visual accession. Signs are white on blue background.Often I read an article or blog post and suddenly find that I am falling down a rabbit hole. Hours, or even days, later I emerge, having uncovered a wealth of information and resources that have to be edited down in order to present a reasonably digestible overview of a topic for you readers. Such was the case with David Gooblar’s post Now is the Time to Think About Accessibility on his Chronicle Vitae Pedagogy Unbound blog (August 8, 2017). From the links in his article, I went on to discover other great material on accessibility to share—enough good stuff for two posts. This first post will cover thinking about accessibility in your classroom in general; next will be a follow-up post focused on creating an accessible syllabus and other documents for your class.

Gooblar starts off by noting that for many instructors, accessibility is given a brief mention at the end of the syllabus and then forgotten. Accessibility is seen as “an exception to the norm” and given little thought. He then notes an article by Anne-Marie Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, which takes issue with that way of “conceptualizing accessibility.”

Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi (College Composition and Communication, February 2017) by Anne-Marie Womack should be required reading for all higher ed instructors. [Note: if the link does not work, try copying and pasting this URL directly into your browser: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/0683-feb2017/CCCC0683Teaching.pdf.] It is an important document that asks us to rethink disability and academic accommodations. She starts by discussing “contemporary theories of disability to retheorize accommodation as the process of teaching itself.” Womack provides a history of disability law and American institutions of higher education, noting that students today must “pass substantial hurdles to qualify for accommodations” often at the risk of being stigmatized. Faculty, who may receive little institutional support, come to feel that they are the ones burdened by the process. Any resulting pedagogical changes are seen as affecting only the students with disabilities.

Womack argues that resistance to accommodation by university administration and faculty assumes that accommodations are an exception to a rule, to a best practice, or normal way of teaching. Womack states, “Ultimately, though, there is no normal, primary way of learning, only normalized methods made primary through frequent use. Material always changes as it moves from expert to novice. Every act of teaching is an accommodation because it creates certain conditions for students to learn and display learning.” Even though effective student learning means that the material is accessible, instructors have come to feel that “making material accessible to disabled students threatens academic rigor.”

Seen from another vantage point, inclusive teaching means eliminating barriers to learning, not eliminating intellectual challenges. Womack says, “Accommodation is the most basic act and art of teaching. It is not the exception we sometimes make in spite of learning, but rather the adaptations we continually make to promote learning.” She advocates accommodation of disabled students within a universal design framework.

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” Universal design is good for everyone. In your classroom, Womack suggests, for example, considering guidelines for dyslexic and blind readers, working under the assumption that by creating documents that more students can read, more students will read. She warns, however, that universal design must be used as a process, not to negate the need for accommodations, but to start to negotiate the means to accessibility for all.

In my next post I will look at the second part of Womack’s article, which provides suggestions for creating accessible documents, engaging students by using “cooperative language” and building flexibility into your course to empower students. “If instructors see the syllabus through the lens of disability, then the question becomes not how policies protect a normative standard but how far they extend inclusion.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Writing Course Learning Goals

Today’s post is timely—many instructors are putting together syllabi for fall courses. This year, Johns Hopkins’ faculty who teach undergraduates are being urged to include course learning goals in their syllabi. Mike Reese, Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Educational Resources (CER), and Richard Shingles, a lecturer in Biology and Pedagogy Specialist in the CER, and created an Innovative Instructor print series article as an aid, shared below. If you are looking for other information on creating effective syllabi, type syllabus in the search box for this blog to see previous articles on the topic. Another resource for writing course learning goals is Arizona State University’s free Online Objectives Builder. It runs instructors through a logical process for creating course goals and objectives. Take the short tutorial and you are on your way.

 

Graphic illustration of three lit light bulbs.

What are course learning goals and why do they matter?

Effective teaching starts with thoughtful course planning. The first step in preparing a course is to clearly define your course learning goals. These goals describe the broad, overarching expectations of what students should be able to do by the end of the course, specifically what knowledge students should possess and/or what skills they should be able to demonstrate. Instructors use goals to design course assignments and assessments, and to determine what teaching methods will work best to achieve the desired outcomes.

Course learning goals are important for several reasons. They communicate the instructor’s expectations to students on the syllabus. They guide the instructor’s selection of appropriate teaching approaches, resources, and assignments. Learning goals inform colleagues who are teaching related or dependent courses. Similarly, departments can use them to map the curriculum. Departmental reviews of the learning goals ensure prerequisite courses teach the skills necessary for subsequent courses, and that multiple courses are not unnecessarily teaching redundant skills.

Once defined, the overarching course learning goals should inform the class-specific topics and teaching methods. Consider an example goal: At the end of the course, students will be able to apply social science data collection and analysis techniques. Several course sessions or units will be needed to teach students the knowledge and skills necessary to meet this goal. One class session might teach students how to design a survey; another could teach them how to conduct a research interview.

A syllabus usually includes a learning goals section that begins with a statement such as, “At the end of this course, students will be able to:” that is followed by 4-6 learning goals clearly defining the skills and knowledge students will be able to demonstrate.

Faculty should start with a general list of course learning goals and then refine the list to make the goals more specific. Edit the goals by taking into consideration the different abilities, interests, and expectations of your students and the amount of time available for class instruction. How many goals can your students accomplish over the length of the course? Consider including non-content goals such as skills that are important in the field.

Content goal: Analyze the key forces that influenced the rise of Japan as an economic superpower.
Non-content goal: Conduct a literature search.

The following list characterizes clearly-defined learning goals. Consider these suggestions when drafting goals.

Specific – Concise, well-defined statements of what students will be able to do.
Measurable – The goals suggest how students will be assessed. Use action verbs that can be observed through a test, homework, or project (e.g., define, apply, propose).

Non-measurable goal: Students will understand Maxwell’s Equations.
Measurable goal: Students will be able to apply the full set of Maxwell’s Equations to different events/situations.

Attainable – Students have the pre-requisite knowledge and skills and the course is long enought that students can achieve the goals.
Relevant – The skills or knowledge described are appropriate for the course or the program in which the course is embedded.
Time-bound – State when students should be able to demonstrate the skill (end of the course, end of semester, etc.).

The most difficult aspect of writing learning goals for most instructors is ensuring the goals are measurable and attainable. In an introductory science course, students may be expected to recall or describe basic facts and concepts. In a senior humanities course, students may be expected to conduct deep critical analysis and synthesis of themes and concepts. There are numerous aids online that suggest action verbs to use when writing learning goals that are measurable and achievable. These aids are typically structured by Bloom’s Taxonomy – a framework for categorizing educational goals by their challenge level. Below is an example of action verbs aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Chart showing verbs aligned with Bloom's Taxonomy levels.

Avoid vague verbs like “understand” or “know” because it can be difficult to come to consensus about how the goal can be measured. Think more specifically about what students should be able to demonstrate.

Here are examples of learning goals for several different disciplines using a common introductory statement. “By the end of this course, students will be able to do the following…

“Propose a cognitive neuroscience experiment that justifies the choice of question, experimental method and explains the logic of the proposed approach.” (Cognitive Science)
“Articulate specific connections between texts and historical, cultural, artistic, social and political contexts.” (German and Romance Languages and Literature)
“Design and conduct experiments.” (Chemistry)
“Design a system to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability.” (Biomedical Engineering)

Additional Resources
Bloom’s Taxonomy article. http://cer.jhu.edu/files/InnovInstruct-BP_blooms-taxonomy-action-speakslouder.pdf
Blog post on preparing a syllabus. http://ii.library.jhu.edu/2017/02/23/lunch-and-learn-constructing-acomprehensive-syllabus

Authors
Richard Shingles
, Lecturer, Biology Department, JHU
Dr. Richard Shingles is a faculty member in the Biology department and also works with the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Director of the TA Training Institute and The Teaching Institute at JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, postdocs and graduate students.
Michael J. Reese Jr., Associate Dean and Director, CER
Mike Reese is Associate Dean of University Libraries and Director of the Center for Educational Resources. He has a PhD from the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

Images source: © 2017 Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources

Flipping a Statistical Analysis Course

I wanted to share my reflections on flipping a course in Fall 2015 with my colleague, Dan Naiman, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Statistics at Johns Hopkins University. The course is 550.111: Statistical Analysis I. Previously, this 4-credit course met four time per week for 50 minutes – three lectures by faculty and one small-group meeting led by a Teaching Assistant (TA).

Text reading flipping the classroom with the classroom upside downStarting in Fall 2015, students watched several short videos (anywhere from 5 to around 20 minutes each) before the week started. Students then met once for a 75-minute lecture with the instructor and twice in small-groups with a TA. During these sessions students solved problems in teams of three with a TA available for help as needed.

In Fall 2016, we amended the format slightly: students met in a large lecture twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, and met in discussion sections twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was in response to feedback from students indicating that they preferred a bit of additional face-to-face meeting time with the instructor. The Monday-Friday lecture times also made homework submission and certain aspects of course planning (such as exams) easier to handle.

We made this change because we wanted students to spend more time in small groups solving problems and engaged in activities, as opposed to simply listening to a lecture.

What did we learn? I would strongly advise those interested in flipping a class to keep the videos short. They should be about five minutes each. This allows each video to cover a discrete topic, and it’s about as long as students will watch in one session. Recording shorter videos is easier on the instructor as well. The video production took longer than I expected. For each video, Dan and I would first construct a slideshow, and then we would record it using the software program Camtasia. My colleague, Dan, did an excellent job with video production, and we generated significant video content before the start of the semester. I would also advise instructors to complete all video production before the start of the semester; we still had a few videos to produce during the semester, and this was a challenge. I found I was pressed to finish those additional videos in time. We plan to revisit, edit, and potentially add more videos before the next course offering. Specifically, we are considering animations and possible hand-written solutions.

We conducted clicker quizzes at the beginning of each lecture to motivate students to watch the videos. However, based on the video logs, quiz results, and the questions they asked, I found a number of students were not fully prepared. Their questions were on topics covered in the videos. I would estimate that in Fall 2015, until the first exam, a number of students did not pay sufficient attention to the videos. However, after the first exam, students began watching the videos more diligently.

One reason we flipped the course was to restructure class time so that students could spend more time in mentored environments working in small groups solving problems. As it turned out, though, students requested more lecture than the once-weekly format. Students struggled to grasp some concepts from the videos. While students can review these topics multiple times, I believe they sometimes needed an alternative explanation. In a lecture, when students ask questions, I try to respond with a different perspective or explanation. With the flipped model in Fall 2015, students had only one class meeting each week to ask me questions about the homework. The second time we ran the course, in Fall 2016, we had two lectures each week, and I think students appreciated the additional lecture time.

I really enjoy teaching this course. It’s a lot of fun and a great privilege. Many non-majors enroll, and humanities undergrads have shared that this was the first math course they enjoyed and they were impressed with the applicability and universality of statistics. The class typically enrolls about 100 students.  Even with this large number I am able to learn most of their names by the end of the semester when we met three times per week. I did feel, though, that I was not able to get to know students as well when we met once per week. More important, I think the once-weekly lecture deterred students from coming to see me during office hours: I noticed a sharp decrease in the number of students who consulted me during office hours in Fall 2015. In Fall 2016, under the twice-weekly lecture model, I had better office hour attendance and was better able to get to know students.

While we were happy with the increase in the number of lectures, I think it’s important that we not decrease the number of small group meetings. The worksheet activities were important for their learning. Students were not always as enthusiastic about the small group problem solving, but they adjusted to the format and things improved as the semester moved forward. Furthermore, we still found it better than a TA solving demo problems for the class, especially in terms of class engagement and in terms of fostering independent problem-solving.

We used two types of problems in the course. The first required more synthesis-based understanding of previous topics. We began to develop more basic, conceptual worksheets once we saw students were not always able to keep up with the videos.

We did not give students the solutions to the worksheets. We worried that if we provided full solutions, they might be less motivated to work through challenging problems and/or skip discussion section altogether, and participation in section was important. Students did get feedback from the TA when they presented their solutions in class, and we did provide solutions to most assigned homework problems.

Overall, we did not see a dramatic change in student learning. We did not conduct a controlled study of learning gains, but exam scores were not much different from year-to-year. Course evaluations for the one-lecture-per-week format were slightly lower. (Again, the main complaint was that students wanted more time with faculty member in lecture.) Students were happier with the two-lecture-per-week format we implemented in Fall 2016. Therefore, we plan to stick with this format, meeting four times per week so students attend two lectures and two small-group sessions per week. We have also been more explicit about the role of each component of the course – videos, lecture, clicker quizzes, small group meetings – and what students are responsible for completing and when.

Most of all, we were very lucky to experiment with this approach with many terrific TAs—we owe them a real debt of gratitude for their assistance. We gratefully acknowledge support from the Office of the Provost and President for a PILOT grant that assisted us in implementing the flipped course.

 

Avanti Athreya is an Assistant Research Professor in Applied Mathematics and Statistics (AMS) at Johns Hopkins University. Prior to flipping the statistics course, she and Professors Naiman, Fishkind, Torcaso, and Jedynak (all AMS faculty) implemented a case-study based approach to introductory statistics as a part of the JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative. Her research interests are in probability and statistical inference on random graphs.

Dan Naiman has been on the faculty in Applied Mathematics and Statistics since 1982. Upon arrival at JHU, he taught Statistical Analysis I for 3 consecutive years, and has continued to teach the course occasionally, as well as a host of other statistics courses at all levels, since then.

Image Source: CC Macie Hall 2013

 

Writing Effective Learning Objectives

Illustration of a light bulb with the word goals forming the filament and being written by a hand holding a pencil.Effective teaching depends upon effective planning and design. The first step in preparing a high quality course is to clearly define your educational goals, which are the broad, overarching expectations for student learning and performance at the end of your course. (See The Innovative Instructor post: Writing Course Learning Goals) Next is to determine your learning objectives by writing explicit statements that describe what the student(s) will be able to do at the end of each class or course unit. This includes the concepts they need to learn, and the skills they need to acquire and be able to apply.

Developing learning objectives is part of the instructional design framework known as Backward Design, a student-centric approach that aligns learning objectives with assessment and instruction.

Clearly defined objectives form the foundation for selecting appropriate content, learning activities and assessment plans. Learning objectives help you to:

  • plan the sequence for instruction, allocate time to topics, assemble materials and plan class outlines.
  • develop a guide to teaching allowing you to plan different instructional methods for presenting different parts of the content. (e.g. small group discussions of a common misconception).
  • facilitate various assessment activities including assessing students, your instruction, and the curriculum.

Think about what a successful student in your course should be able to do on completion. Questions to ask are: What concepts should they be able to apply? What kinds of analysis should they be able to perform? What kind of writing should they be able to do? What types of problems should they be solving? Learning objectives provide a means for clearly describing these things to learners, thus creating an educational experience that will be meaningful.

Following are strategies for creating learning objectives.

I. Use S.M.A.R.T. Attributes

Learning objectives should have the following S.M.A.R.T. attributes.

Specific – Concise, well-defined statements of what students will be able to do.
Measurable – The goals suggest how students will be assessed. Start with action verbs that can be observed through a test, homework, or project (e.g., define, apply, propose).
Attainable – Students have the pre-requisite knowledge and skills and the course is long enough that students can achieve the objectives.
Relevant – The skills or knowledge described are appropriate for the course or the program in which the course is embedded.
Time-bound – State when students should be able to demonstrate the skill (end of the course, end of semester, etc.).

II. Use Behavioral Verbs

Another useful tip for learning objectives is to use behavioral verbs that are observable and measurable. Fortunately, Bloom’s taxonomy provides a list of such verbs and these are categorized according to the level of achievement at which students should be performing. (See The Innovative Instructor post: A Guide to Bloom’s Taxonomy) Using concrete verbs will help keep your objectives clear and concise.

Here is a selected, but not definitive, list of verbs to consider using when constructing learning objectives:

assemble, construct, create, develop, compare, contrast, appraise, defend, judge, support, distinguish, examine, demonstrate, illustrate, interpret, solve, describe, explain, identify, summarize, cite, define, list, name, recall, state, order, perform, measure, verify, relate

While the verbs above clearly distinguish the action that should be performed, there are verbs to avoid when writing a learning objective. The following verbs are too vague or difficult to measure:

appreciate, cover, realize, be aware of, familiarize, study, become acquainted with, gain knowledge of, comprehend, know, learn, understand, learn

III. Leverage Bloom’s Taxonomy

Since Blooms taxonomy establishes a framework for categorizing educational goals, having an understanding of these categories is useful for planning learning activities and writing learning objectives.

Examples of Learning Objectives

At end of the [module, unit, course] students will be able to…

… identify and explain major events from the Civil War. (American History)

… effectively communicate information, ideas and proposals in visual, written, and oral forms. (Marketing Communications)

… analyze kinetic data and obtain rate laws. (Chemical Engineering)

…interpret DNA sequencing data. (Biology)

…discuss and form persuasive arguments about a variety of literary texts produced by Roman authors of the Republican period. (Classics)

…evaluate the appropriateness of the conclusions reached in a research study based on the data presented. (Sociology)

…design their own fiscal and monetary policies. (Economics)

Additional Resources

*****************************************************************************************

Richard Shingles, Lecturer, Biology Department

Richard Shingles is a faculty member in the Biology department and also works with the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Director of the TA Training Institute and The Summer Teaching Institute on the Homewood campus of JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, post-docs and graduate students.

Images source: © Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources, 2016