Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Student derived learning objectives

Jan Thomas and Clive Huxtable
School of Veterinary Studies
Murdoch University

Background and context

In common with many science courses there is a tendency within the School of Veterinary Studies at Murdoch University to have high content, high contact components, which are not flexible (Newble and Cannon 1989). Most veterinary students are highly motivated and have been very successful in a competitive, exam-based system. They are familiar with units where they are told what to study and expect that the lecturer will provide them with what they are required to know. This is particularly true in the earlier years, which are based on the basic sciences, and act as a foundation for the more applied clinical years. Students often view the acquisition of knowledge in the earlier years of the veterinary degree as a necessary evil. This is often because the contextual relevance of material is not made explicit.

General Pathology is a year long, compulsory subject in the third year of the Veterinary Studies Programme. In it, students learn about disease mechanisms, how to recognise these mechanisms and how to predict disease outcomes. During first semester, all areas have teacher derived, outcomes-based objectives for student learning. The area that we use this method of teaching relates to neoplasia (or "cancer") which is taught throughout the Semester 2. This material is not dependent on material presented in Semester 1, and so students start this part of the unit with no "official" knowledge of the area.

Teaching method

Before any lectures or tutorials on the topic, students participate in two, one hour workshops and the products of these workshops are assessed. Time for these workshops was made available by using lecture and tutorial timeslots. During the first hour, students examined a list of statements relating to the subject. Working in informal groups, they read the statements and discuss the issues raised. Some of the statements will assume some understanding of earlier concepts of DNA and cell biology. More importantly, many students will have had previous experience with "cancer" in some form through relatives and friends. All will be aware of "cancer' through general knowledge and the media.

Group discussion will often result in knowledge being exchanged and built upon. During the first session students are simply asked to identify areas that they don't understand. Teachers (one per twenty students) generally circulate and chat, deflecting questions with open ended questions such as "What would you infer from that", How is X related to Y?, What criteria would you use....?" and What might happen if you combined...?". These act to stimulate even more ideas and linkages of concepts.

For example, the students may comment on " my grandmother had cancer of the bowel and then she developed cancer of the brain". The students may raise the possibilities that the person may have developed two cancers coincidentally, may have had a predisposition to cancer formation or that they may in some way be linked. Can cancer spread from one organ to another? Is the cancer at the second site cancer of the brain, or cancer of the stomach? This would generate several learning issues. Can cancer spread, and under what conditions? Are individuals predisposed to development of cancer, and if so by what mechanisms. Were there any external influences on the development of that bowel cancer? What is their mechanism? What causes cancer patients to die?

During the second hour, on the following day, students write a set of their own personal learning objectives and a working definition of neoplasia. This is submitted at the end of this session and assessed. It makes up about 4% of total marks. High grades are given for objectives that make logical links between concepts and indicate some thought has gone into the exercise. For example, "What criteria do are used to determine whether a change is neoplastic?, Is it possible to identify whether a neoplasm will spread? How do you treat the different sorts of neoplasms? Everyone is exposed to sunlight, why do only some people develop cancer?. At this stage, incorrect concepts and facts are irrelevant, and the student is encouraged to think widely about the varying aspects of neoplasia. Poor marks are given for submissions that are superficial. For example, my learning objective is to learn about neoplasia. The lectures and practical classes were then completed in a traditional fashion, and the teachers learning objectives were given out towards the end of the semester.

In the first year of this exercise, we attempted to get students to reflect formally on their learning experience. After the lecture and practical component on neoplasia, they we asked to write an essay on their learning experience and whether all their learning objectives had been met. If there were objectives not met, they were asked to address these learning areas and summarise information that they gathered from elsewhere. In addition, they rewrote the definition of neoplasia.

Educational theory behind the practice

In a learner centred curriculum model, the emphasis is on the learner actively engaging in the knowledge from a personal perspective. The role of the teacher is to provide an environment that allows learning to occur. However, where assessment of students and curriculum is through external registration there is a need to focus learning to address specific competency criteria. As such, academics in this School would be negligent to allow students to completely "follow their nose" to the exclusion of these criteria. A compromise in totally student directed learning is that the learning is self-driven but within some constraints. I draw an analogy with traveling to work. We drive within some constraints, rules of the road, places we need to be at specific times. Within this framework, we are able to determine, the route, the mode of transport, the speed and the quality of the driving. Whilst the framework will always need to be in place in a professional course, there should always be some flexibility and capacity for self directed-learning.

Over the last two years, the school has been active in attempting to develop appropriate teaching strategies that allow a suitable environment for deep learning (Ramsden 1992) to occur. One part of this environment is clear communication between teacher and learner regarding the expectations of both. An effective framework for reaching these expectations requires appropriate outcomes based objectives that encourage deep learning (Newble and Jaeger, 1983; Sharp 1990). In particular, objectives should be explicit and reinforced by teachers. Student centred objectives for learning are currently being developing school wide. Although the writing of objectives for student learning is in its infancy within the School, there has been very positive feedback from students.

Appropriate objectives are useful for teachers within the school as they provide

Students gain most benefit from the accurate formulation of objectives as: The generation of objectives for units is not without its problems. Students addicted to focusing on the assessment as the major motivator for learning welcome objectives as a form of study questions. Indeed, objectives written to cover the lower level knowledge form a particularly useful set of study questions for students. Objectives written to tackle deeper learning, such as integration, distillation, synthesis and personal justification of knowledge can appear daunting, particularly if these make up the majority.

Another downside of learning objectives are that they are always teacher derived and undermine any attempt to encourage self directed learning. By forming this framework, the strategic student looses the motivation to seek information outside that framework and the learning becomes teacher directed. Students should be capable of inquiry, self direction and continued learning through life. The formulation of strictly prescribed set of objectives can undermine such intentions, particularly if students are rarely given the opportunity to approach an area independently. Despite being able, students often don't realise they need to work independently.

The task of generating self driven learning objectives has several intentions. These are that:

Student responses

In the first phase of the exercise, there was a cool response to the idea. During the first workshop they felt out of their depth and unstructured. Frequently there are comment like "how should we know the answers if we haven't been given a lecture on it". Students often perceive that they do not "know anything" about a subject until after they have "studied it". In a traditional lecture course students often will not "study it" until immediately prior to assessment. There have been some aggressive students who were offended by the fact that the lecturer knew the information and was not forthcoming with the answer. They believed that the lecturer knew what the student needed to learn and didn't wish to consider any other opinion. They believed that it was my job to ask the questions, and to set the framework in which they learned. This is in concordance with the observations of Allen (1996). As this author notes, the students "are not stupid" and "have developed skills in asking strategic questions such as what do you want me to do in answering that question". Added to that are "what is it you want to hear" and "will this be in the exam". Students do not adopt the questioning habit until the clinical years. Teachers agreed with the Allen (1996) that our students "were capable and motivated enough to embrace the questioning habit; yet they (do) not do so readily". Presumably this was partially because it was seen as harder to learn in this way than it to be given information in a passive transfer. This shortest possible route to success may be necessary given the high content of courses that surround these students.

Feedback on the reflective exercise in the first year was varied. Students felt that they had enough material to cover without having to waste their time on learning how they learned. There was a general feeling that this was a science course and the idea that their personal reflections could be assessed was very threatening. Students were unsettled as the unit and the assessment methods had already moved away from their expectations. Despite recognising the need for such reflection to enhance learning the decision to drop this exercise temporarily was made.

Positive informal and formal feedback on the writing of objectives came after students had finished the unit. On reflection of the semester, students made comments such as "it was amazing how much I already knew about neoplasia" and "how easy it was to listen to the lectures when I had already thought about the subject. Others said "I became interested in the subject and wanted to attend to find out the answers to my questions". They took some comfort in the fact that their objectives are similar to those derived by the teacher. They become confident that they could be "trusted" to identify the areas of importance in the subject material.

Evaluations have demonstrated that 90% of students feel that the workshop and review on personal learning objectives encourages them to think about what they are learning. In addition, 88% have had their interest in the course stimulated as a result. In constrast, 38% feel that they did not understand the level of work that was expected, giving us a clear idea where further work with this method is required.

Teacher observations

Moving away from the comfort zone of teacher derived learning objectives is new for veterinary students and for teachers. We were well that, despite their potential ability, students would find generation of their own concepts and direction challenging. For our pragmatic students to actively engage in an activity, and to emphasis its importance, it needed to be assessed. Observations of the veterinary students suggest that most approach learning in the early years superficially with the intention of "getting the right answers". This occurs in the absence of knowing the implications of this knowledge, and often without any clear idea on how to find this information. For students to be motivated to get "the right" information they need to feel a personal responsibility for that learning.

As a result of the objectives' workshops it was noted that students were more interested in topic from the outset. They were more likely to ask questions early in semester, rather than at the end of the teaching period. Teachers were surprised at how much knowledge the students came into the area knowing, and this allowed for modifications in the lecture content to accommodate this prior knowledge. The student objectives gave insight into the student expectations for the unit. In particular, students were concerned with applied information and this was then incorporated as much as possible. Teachers were often challenged to address issues "on the run". This could be improved by providing a formal framework for more self directed learning by students in areas that were not considered "core content" by the teachers. Overall, teacher satisfaction was elevated, mainly due to the heightened level of awareness and interest by students in the subject matter.


Allen, M. (1996). A Dilemma: How do we enable and encourage students to ask questions, not simply answer them? In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p7-12. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/allen.html

Newble, D. and Jaeger K. (1983). The Effect Of Assessments And Examinations On The Learning Of Medical Students. Medical Education, 17, 25-31.

Newble, D. and Cannon, R. (1989). A Handbook for Teachers in Universities and Colleges: A guide to improving teaching methods. Kogan Page London

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. Routledge, London.

Sharp, J. J . (1990). Does Higher Education Promote Independent Learning? A Discussion. Higher Education, 20, 335-336.

Please cite as: Thomas, J. and Huxtable, C. (1997). Student derived learning objectives. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p319-323. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/thomas.html

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