Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: Specifying the Outcomes of Student Learning
Page: 10 - Advantages and disadvantages of the objectives-based approach

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Advantages and disadvantages of the Learning Outcomes approach

Let us now end this section by looking briefly at some of the advantages and disadvantages of adopting an learning outcomes-based approach to instructional design.


Detailed, well-written learning outcomes or competence descriptors allow both teaching staff and learners to have a clear picture of the behaviour that is expected of the latter at the end of a course. This can help to provide direction and stability in the course,and can also help to guard against over-reliance on a particular staff member or idiosyncratic interpretation of syllabuses. It is, of course, strongly recommended that the students should always be included in this pre-knowledge of objectives. All too often in the past, their only clue as to what was required of them came from a study of previous exam papers - a situation that is difficult to defend, since students have quite enough problems to face without being involved in academic 'guessing games'.

Nor should this mutual awareness of objectives be limited to the more academic aspects of a course, since it is also possible to employ an objectives-based approach when planning laboratory and other practical work. Here, it should, in principle, be possible to provide the students with a clear indication of the desired outcomes of such work before the start of each practical session. The need for such a procedure was emphasized by the results of a research project that was carried out in one of the science departments of a large Scottish university. This compared the tutors' intended (but unwritten) objectives with the students' perceptions of the educational objectives of the various laboratory experiments, and it was found that any resemblance between the two was purely coincidental!

Another advantage that clearly-articulated learning outcomes or competence descriptors can provide is in adjusting teaching methods to facilitate the achievement of the stated objectives. If a teacher has made a serious attempt to analyse the objectives of the course being taught and compares the chosen teaching methods with these, some anomalies will probably become apparent. If the teacher is honest, he or she may well conclude that the methods adopted have only a remote chance of enabling students to attain some of the stated objectives and take appropriate action. However, objectives need not be restrictive, and, within the framework which they provide, there may be many possible routes to the stated goals (see the booklet on 'Selecting Appropriate Teaching/Learning Methods').

A further benefit which can arise from a clear statement of objectives is that a teacher who is in possession of such objectives should be in a much better position to decide how they may be assessed, since he or she should know exactly what behaviour they are supposed to be assessing. Different types of behaviour require different forms of assessment, and methods that may be highly appropriate for assessing lower cognitive skills such as knowledge and understanding may well be far less suitable for assessing higher-level skills such as reasoning, creative thinking and logical presentation. This is discussed in detail in the booklet on 'Assessing Student Performance'.

It is not, of course, being suggested that all the learning outcomes or competences of a course can be assessed in a quantitative manner; indeed, in some cases, it is difficult to assess them at all, particularly in the case of those that lie in the affective rather than the cognitive domain and in the broader 'life skill' areas discussed previously. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly widely accepted that objectives of this type are an extremely important component of most courses, and may, in some cases, be the longest-lasting and most beneficial outcomes of the course. Thus, it is highly desirable that such objectives be included in the list of course objectives and assessed wherever possible. Even when they cannot all be formally assessed, they will at least help give direction to the course, as well as focusing attention on the need to use teaching methods that may be capable of achieving them.

Finally, the very act of sitting down to write a list of learning outcomes or competence descriptors can be an extremely useful staff development exercise in its own right. It not only forces teachers and institutions to think deeply about what they are trying to achieve, but, in many cases, also makes them take the first step towards a systematic approach to course design and course monitoring.


One danger of adopting an objectives-based approach to instructional design is that the objectives may be given greater status than they deserve. Despite their name, objectives are anything but 'objective' in the manner in which they are selected and written, since both processes are usually highly subjective in character. Thus, objectives should never be treated as if they are in any way sacrosanct; they are, after all, merely the end result of a value judgement on someone's part.

Another danger inherent in a thorough-going objectives-based approach is that teaching and learning may become so prescribed that spontaneity withers and initiative is stifled. Also, a total concentration on the achievement of clearly-defined objectives may lead to the production of students who are certainly well-trained in specific areas, but who lack the broad spectrum of abilities, skills and desirable attitudinal traits that are normally associated with a balanced, 'rounded' education. When a student is being trained in a skill where straightforward mastery is required, eg learning the rules for naming chemical compounds, or learning how to operate complex machinery, a rigid set of learning outcomes or competence descriptors is usually very much in order. Also, when a piece of individualized instruction involving, say, written or computer-based material is being designed and evaluated, a clear set of objectives is always extremely valuable to both learner and designer. However, when a teacher is concerned with the outcomes of education in its broadest sense,there are many aspects which defy circumscription in the form of set objectives. Indeed, one could argue that it is sheer nonsense to suggest that a teacher should only teach towards that which can be formulated in terms of Magerian objectives or that which can be rigidly assessed. It is obviously the case that some subjects (eg mathematics and science) lend themselves more readily to a 'straight' objectives-based approach than others (eg art appreciation and politics); nevertheless, even in these subjects, it is important that the teaching/learning process should have a direction.

A less fundamental, but very practical, weakness of the objectives-based approach is that learning outcomes and competence descriptors can be difficult and time-consuming to construct. Many teachers may feel that they simply do not have the time to produce well-written objectives/learning outcomes, and, if insufficient time and skill are devoted to the task, the net result may well be anything but beneficial to the course. For example, it is usually the simplest and perhaps the most trivial objectives that are the easiest to write in 'standard format'; this may lead to low-grade objectives of this type dominating a course at the expense of potentially more valuable goals which are not included simply because they are less easy to encapsulate in unambiguous statements.

Finally, we should always remember that course or curriculum development is an on-going cyclical process,and that all objectives and learning outcomes should themselves be re-appraised at regular intervals - not only to determine whether they are being achieved in the course, but also to establish whether they continue to reflect a valid interpretation of the course's direction and emphasis; if they do not, then it is time to change them.

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