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Friday, July 10, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching– Identify Your Learning Objectives

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here.

In my last post, I laid out a five step approach to redesigning your courses for a physically distanced, hybrid, or remote semester.  This post covers the first step, which is to identify your learning objectives. 

I’ll fully admit that this step is the least exciting of the five.  We have so much to learn about distanced and remote pedagogy that we are eager to dive into the new stuff.  We don’t want to spend our precious time this summer on more general pedagogical work.  I get it, but if you’re going to spend time overhauling your courses, you have to know what you want your students to get out of them.  It’s the foundation for all of the other steps. 

Pull out your old learning objectives from past syllabi, and take a hard look at them.  Do they still represent your learning goals for the course?  My learning objectives represent a constant battle between depth and breadth.  It feels so satisfying to cover lots of content in a course, zipping through the chapters in a casebook.   This satisfaction dissipates though when you see the same students in a year or two, and they remember little of the content.  Three weeks of personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure becomes “um, minimum contacts?”

This isn’t a critique of our students.  It’s just how the human brain works.  Our brains are not designed to remember lots of information if we don’t regularly use it.  That doesn’t mean that content is irrelevant—I still teach personal jurisdiction!—but I need to do more in the classroom to get it to stick in students’ minds.

Just as importantly, most of us have pedagogical goals that extend beyond our students being able to remember and parrot back the content.  We want our students to be able to use the content in various ways, and it takes time to develop these deeper skills.   So deciding on your learning goals is a balance between covering lots of concepts and developing students’ ability to use these concepts in various ways.

To develop these deeper learning objectives, take a look at the various learning taxonomies that instructional experts have developed.  You might start with Bloom’s taxonomy, a  staple for many of us.  The list of verbs that often accompany each level of Bloom’s taxonomy are a helpful start to drafting learning objectives.  I aim for fewer objectives that start with the verb “understand” and more objectives that start with specific and measurable verbs that represent what students will be able to do with the content.  Here are the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy along with some corresponding verbs for each level.


Some faculty balk at the hierarchical nature of Bloom, however, and there are plenty of other good learning taxonomies out there.   Dee Fink, who wrote one of the foundational texts on integrated course design, has a good taxonomy that incorporates the human side of learning, including learning how to learn and developing self-knowledge, empathy, and an understanding of one’s own values.  Davis & Arend have a similar framework that may be appealing to many law professors because it includes components for building skills, cultivating problem solving abilities, and developing professional judgment. 

It’s also worth thinking through the broader questions you want to tackle in your course.  What are the deep questions that run through your course?  Phrased more broadly, in your deepest, fondest dreams, what kind of impact would you like to have on your students?  That is, when your course is over, and it is 3-5 years later, what will your students still value, know, and/or be able to do?  These questions come from a course design workshop I took with Professor Michael Palmer from the University of Virginia several years ago, and they are a helpful reminder that not all learning objectives need to be objective and measurable. 

For those professors who already review their learning objectives on a regular basis, here are three ways to go a bit further.

First, use this moment in history to think about how your course treats issues related to oppression and racism.  If you are rethinking content, ask yourself some hard questions about the traditional content in your courses.  Which issues and voices are you prioritizing in your selection of readings?  Do you acknowledge and discuss the interests and perspectives that the law is protecting or ignoring?  Do you provide space in the classroom for students to explore the broader social and historical context of the doctrine?  As I rethink my learning objectives for  Civil Procedure in the fall, these questions will be at the center of my thinking.  The AALS had a good webinar last week on racism and justice in our fall courses, and the video is available here if you want to check it out.

Second, consider partnering with faculty teaching similar courses to develop common learning objectives.  We often design our courses in a vacuum, but many law professors are working this summer to rethink their courses, which presents a great opportunity to collaborate and share ideas. I’ve met a few times with the other professors here at Richmond Law teaching Civil Procedure, and it’s been so helpful to hear what they are planning and be able to learn from them.

Finally, look for opportunities to share your learning objectives with your students.  I’ve traditionally included my learning objectives in my syllabus, but we all know students don’t always read the syllabus with as much care as we might like.  It turns out that students perform better when they take the time to reflect on how the learning objectives connect to their personal goals for the course.  You might think about an assignment in the first week of the course asking students to read the course objectives and submit a brief video or written response discussing how these objectives relate to their own objectives for their career or the course.  You might also ask students to reflect at the end of the semester on whether they achieved the course objectives and the advice they might have for students taking the course in the future.

I’ll end by noting that we already have many tools to address the challenges of the fall semester.  Yes, we still have so much to learn about online pedagogy (and physically distanced pedagogy, which appears to be entirely new), but course design all starts from the same basic principles.  So before you dive into all of the new stuff out there specifically about online pedagogy, spend some time reflecting on integrated course design and rethinking your learning objectives.  I really like Dee Fink’s primer on integrated course design and the accompanying self-directed guide available here.

My posts next week will focus on assessment & engagement techniques in physically distanced, hybrid, and remote courses, so feel free to share any specific questions on these topics in the comments below.    

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 10, 2020 at 10:35 AM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Posted by: JJ Paramus Day Care | Jul 16, 2020 10:51:06 AM

As a new prof this year, I found this incredibly helpful and thoughtful. Thank you for posting that information, including the links to other taxonomy.

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