Crafting Your Learning Objectives

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time.” This statement may sound a little cliché by now, but it actually contains some time-worn wisdom. Without clear, well-stated goals, we can never really measure if we’ve accomplished anything. In the classroom, it’s not enough to disseminate information for eleven weeks, collect and grade assignments, and award a final grade. We must begin the quarter with specific objectives and end the quarter with criteria with which to determine if we’ve met those objectives.

It’s possible that someone might challenge this last point and claim that theological education—due to its nature as a spiritual endeavor—defies quantifiable assessment. The argument might go like this: Because our work ultimately depends on God illuminating the minds of our students and granting them spiritual maturity and growth in character, it’s both unwise and unprofitable to establish benchmarks to evaluate student progress. Let’s just teach and leave the rest to God.

Now, there is certainly some truth in this objection. As I noted in the last installment of the Pastor-Professor, theological education is unique: we are dependent upon a sovereign God who grants spiritual growth and progress according to his own will (1 Cor 3:6; Heb 6:3). But God’s sovereignty over our students’ spiritual and theological progress does not preclude diligence on our part to develop measurable objectives. Why? Because our God is a God of means.

While it is true that “God caused the growth,” it is also true that Paul and Apollos planted and watered. Paul’s mention of their dependence upon God for gospel growth among the Corinthians was not to dismiss the importance of means. Rather, these comments were meant to demonstrate that Paul and Apollos were replaceable servants and not worthy of the man-centered partisanship occurring in the Corinthian church. The same apostle who depended on God for the spiritual progress of fellow believers also labored intentionally to that end (Phil 1:25)

In his pastoral epistles, Paul articulated to Timothy a plan for discipleship that had learning objectives built-in: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men,who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). It wasn’t enough for Timothy to “just teach;” he had to ensure that those whom he taught would “be able to teach others also.” This goal would have required some objective assessments of teaching skill and growth in knowledge among those who Timothy was entrusting the word of God.

What are Learning Objectives?
Learning objectives are statements of what you desire for the students to achieve over the course of the quarter. These objectives should be included in the syllabus, articulated to the students on the first day of class, and personally revisited throughout the quarter in order to make sure you remain on course. These objectives will also help you determine the best way to develop learning assessments (i.e., tests, quizzes, papers, etc.). These statements are usually short, but they are always specific and measurable. Let’s consider a couple of examples.  

Vague: Students will learn about inerrancy.

Specific: Students will be able to articulate a concise definition of inerrancy and defend their definition with specific biblical texts and coherent theological synthesis.

The first statement is vague and therefore immeasurable. How can we determine if students have learned about “inerrancy?” What about “inerrancy” do we want them to learn? What skill do we want them to develop over the next eleven weeks? How can we assess if they have developed this skill? The second statement, due to its specificity, is measurable and also helps us to know how to assess student achievement. First, we want the student to develop the particular skill of articulating a concise definition of inerrancy that is grounded in biblical texts. This skill could be tested in a short-answer question on a quiz or exam. Second, we desire students to be able to define inerrancy with “coherent theological synthesis.” This aspect of our objective could be assessed through essay-length answers in an exam or through a position paper.  

Vague: Students will grow in their appreciation of how Christian doctrines relate to each other.

Specific: Students will grow in their appreciation of how Christian doctrines relate to, affect, and depend upon each other. Specifically, students will learn how a right understanding of grace assumes (and demands) a proper understanding of sin and the nature of man.

Here we see that the first parts of both the vague and specific objectives are very similar. The specific objective, however, adds a statement about how students will come to better recognize the interdependence of a particular set of doctrines (i.e., grace, sin, the nature of man). This additional statement now provides the criteria for how we will assess student learning. In this case, we can use objective exams and long-form essays to test how students grasp the reality that grace assumes and demands a proper understanding of sin and the nature of man. The objective exams may ask questions about the difference between the Roman Catholic and evangelical doctrine of salvation. An essay would require students to articulate how a mistaken view of sin inevitably leads to an underdeveloped doctrine of grace.

Crafting Your Learning Objectives
The first step in crafting your learning objectives is to consider the subject matter for your class because your goal is to develop objectives that are specifically related to your subject, not other subjects. This counsel may sound rudimentary, but it may be tempting, given the nature of pastoral training, to develop objectives that span the whole of the student’s ministry. While it is true that theological education is holistic and cross-disciplinary, it is not the case that each of us must cover every aspect of pastoral ministry or matters of doctrinal concern in our classes. We’ve been assigned specific course subjects, and we do our students the most good if we learn to go as deeply as possible in those particular subjects.

The second step is to consider the most important skills you want the student to achieve as a result of your instruction and learning assessments. Because we only have a limited time with our students, we cannot create a long list of objectives. Instead, we must distill our objectives into a few of the most vital skills we desire for our students to develop over the course of your eleven weeks together. I currently average around five learning objectives for each class I teach.

Third, plan to take some time crafting your learning objectives. It’s been said that once you have a clear thesis, methodology, and outline, your article or book will “write itself.” While not dismissing the work required to actually complete an article or book, there is truth in the fact that the more effort spent on the initial structure of the writing project most often leads to greater efficiency in the writing process itself. The same can be said for teaching. If you take some time and make some effort in crafting clear, specific, measurable objectives for your class, you will know better what to teach, how to teach it, and how to evaluate if students are learning what they should be learning.

Finally, assess student success in achieving your learning objectives at the end of each quarter. Is in-class participation and performance on learning assessments demonstrating that your students are accomplishing your objectives for the class? It may take a little time, but if you carefully evaluate student success over a few consecutive quarters, you will find that your learning objectives and, consequently, your teaching and testing, will improve for the benefit of future students and the glory of God.

Developing new learning objectives or re-visiting your current ones may not sound like a lot of fun. Your joy is found in the classroom actually teaching the students. I get that. But the point I hope you’ve grasped in this brief article is that crafting sharp, well-worded, specific, measurable objectives will actually enhance your teaching and bless your students. And those two targets are certainly worth aiming for.