New faculty will quickly discover that program directors, deans, and accrediting bodies all expect each educational session to have a set of learning objectives. These objectives define the scope of the session and serve to advise students, faculty, administration, and accreditors of the outcomes expected from the session. Learning to write these objectives efficiently and effectively is an essential skill for a physician assistant (PA) educator.
What is a Learning Objective?
A learning objective is a concise, specific statement of the observable student behavior that can be evaluated at the end of a learning session (or another specified period of time). Note that this definition does not include the process of instruction, only the outcome of the instruction.
Why should we Have Learning Objectives?
Clear learning objectives allow the professor to structure content, learning materials, and activities toward a specific observable end.
Clear learning objectives allow students to develop a plan for study or practice that will enable them to meet the objective
Clear learning objectives allow students, faculty, administrators, and accreditors to assess whether the objective has been met for individual students and the class as a whole.
Clear learning objectives aid students, faculty, and administrators in assessing the effectiveness of the session and the course. If the session did not meet the objectives, revisions to the content or approach should be informed by the failed learning objective.
What are the Characteristics of Learning Objectives?
The business literature has long used the acronym SMART for business goals, but this acronym can also help faculty design effective instructional objectives.
S—Specific: The learning objective says exactly what the student will be able to do after the teaching
M—Measurable: The outcome can be directly observed or assessed at the end of the session (or group of sessions).
In the case of a procedural skill such as venipuncture, the instructor can watch the student perform the task and see whether the student can perform it properly. In the case of knowledge or analysis objectives, the observation or assessment may be a multiple choice test, an essay in which the student evaluates a medical research article, or the results of an Observed Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE).
A—Attainable: It must be possible for the student to demonstrate the skill or knowledge based on the content provided to the student in the session (or reading surrounding the session).
For example, asking a student to list the signs and symptoms of colon cancer based on a 1-hour lecture is attainable. However, asking students to perform a surgical resection of a colon cancer on a patient given a 1-hour lecture is not an attainable goal.
R—Relevant: The learning objective needs to be relevant to the education of the PA student. The 2-year time frame of PA education is intense enough without teaching content that is not needed.
T—Time delineated: The learning objective needs to specify over what time period the student should be able to demonstrate the skill.
For some learning objectives, the answer to this question is “by the time of the final examination.” For others, it might be “by the end of the laboratory session.” For some skills, students must be able to demonstrate that they can complete the skill within a specified period of time. For example, “The student will demonstrate that s/he can perform the entire venipuncture procedure in fewer than 10 minutes.”
Further refinements: An instructor may also consider adding restrictions regarding the conditions under which the task must be performed or the skill must be demonstrated. For example, an objective might be “Given a case-control study drawn from the medical literature, the student will identify two sources of bias found in the article.” The objective limits the conditions to a case-control study, not any study in the medical literature.
Instructors may also decide to demand a particular level of proficiency in the learning objective. For example, the objective might be “Given 10 pictures of the three types of skin cancers, the student will be able to correctly identify the morphology of the cancer 70% of the time.”