The Importance of Learning Objectives and Rigor


One of the great by-products of the wonderful accreditation self-study process is that it often causes instructors to go back through the syllabus and revisit some of the foundations of their courses and programs to make sure there is alignment: from learning objectives to assessments to materials to activities to assignments to competencies to programs to the entire mission of the school. Whew! So the basic foundational building block is the learning objective - but its importance is tied all the way to the mission of the school, pretty important stuff!

What makes a good learning objective?

"Backward design" calls for starting from the end. At the end of the course, what knowledge, skills and/or competencies are to be achieved? We've put together a page about course design which takes you step by step through the process. Starting with identifying target objective verbs (via Bloom's taxonomy) that are appropriate to the level and goals of the course, and making learning objectives that are measurable, student-centered, and aligned with assessments, materials and activities. It all starts with these learning objectives! Really delve into Bloom's taxonomy as you consider the objectives and how they will be measured. Are all of your objectives in the "remembering" and "understanding" categories? What about "applying" "analyzing" "evaluating" and "creating"? This is one of my favorite Bloom's images:

Look at all those great verbs for each different category/level! These can come in handy for touching up your course learning objectives. If you want to focus more on alignment of objectives to assessments, formative vs. summative assessment, and so on, visit our course design page for more info.

What is academic rigor?

This page ( seems to nicely define it as well as what it can look like in three different ways: setting standards, supporting rigorous achievement, and validating achievement. Each of these has several bullets with suggested ways you can infuse these in your courses. Here are some favorites:

Setting the Standard:

    • Examples of desired outcomes and undesired outcomes are overtly shared with students.
    • Students have opportunity to revise their academic attempts.
    • Higher-level, thought-provoking questions are asked by teacher.
    • High-level, thought-provoking answers are shared by students.
    • Teacher does not accept lower-level thinking or answers in discussion or academic tasks.

Supporting Rigorous Achievement:

    • Lessons are systematically scaffolded from one to the next.
    • Materials are consistently organized to clearly provide instructions and demonstration of task.
    • Teacher is available for helping students individually at other points throughout the day.
    • Content is made relevant and relatable to student background information and interest.

Validation of Achievement:

    • A balance of formative and summative assessments intermittently provided.
    • Student demonstration measured using a rubric or other standard-based assessment tool.
    • Students allowed the opportunity to conference and revise work.
    • Homework and class activities thought of as “practice.
    • Students connect material to real-life examples and situations.
    • Students metacognitively apply a variety of content learned.
    • Student performance compared to previous student attempts.
    • Students provide high-level answers to high-level questions.
    • Students reflect on their learning progress and efforts.

Additionally, this post I found on another site regarding rigor in graduate school had some interesting ideas to drill down a bit into the idea of rigor:

1. Quality of literature - If a graduate course is based on a single textbook with no inclusion of original source material, this is a red flag. While textbooks perform a valuable role in summarizing a topic, graduate students should be able to read original literature. Rigorous graduate courses employ multiple literature sources - grads students should be doing extensive reading of the literature. Further, graduate students should know how to find relevant literature and how to evaluate the quality of what they've read.

2. Quality of assignments - Graduate work should require the student to move up Bloom's taxonomy (see below). Graduate work that sticks to the "knowledge" level isn't graduate work - it is undergraduate work - or less.

3. Examination - The use of multiple choice exams is often frowned upon at a graduate level. My take is that the bulk of graduate level exams should require the student to express himself in words or math - again, to move down Bloom's taxonomy. While I occasionally use some multiple choice to test terms and concepts at the "knowledge" level - I use short answer and problems to go deeper.

4. Quantity of work - beyond points 1-3 above, graduate work should require significant effort. If undergraduates are expected to do two hours of prep per hour of class, graduate students should be working 3 hours or more. While I know this is an input measure - I believe that "no pain" leads to "no gain". I haven't found a shortcut to learning - just as there are no shortcuts to physical fitness.

And now, a few short videos about the above topics and/or a non-related but rigor named music video so that you can dance it out to some electro beats...