What is learning (2)?

In the previous posting, I asked the question: what is the product of a course, more specifically, what are the course’s objectives? The point I think I reached was that course objectives are often abstract ideas that don’t help students understand what they need to learn. Let’s see if we can do better.

Let’s start by observing that what we’re looking for is general guidelines, not some bulleted list of items that can be checked off. In other words, this is probably not the recipe for an A in the course. It may be necessary, but it’s probably not sufficient.

The objectives in principles of economics include some combination of skills and content. Content probably includes definitions of concepts in economics, institutional facts or findings and major theories or models. The definitions could include, what is opportunity cost? What is a budget deficit? What is monetary policy? The institutional facts could include, U.S. monetary policy is conducted by the Federal Reserve (an institutional fact), or U.S. monetary policy from 2001 until 2004 was generally expansionary (an institutional finding). The major theories could include the theories of supply and demand, and the income-expenditure model of the macro economy. I expect you could come up with examples from your own discipline.

Relevant skills could include the ability to correctly apply the concepts and institutional facts, for example the ability to answer the question, what is the opportunity cost of partying the night before your midterm exam? The highest order skill would be the ability to apply economic theories or models to derive insights about some issue or problem. For example, what do the theories of supply and demand predict would be the impact on the price of oil of growth in the middle classes in India and China? What does the income-expenditure model of the macro economy predict would be the outcome of reducing the size of the U.S. budget deficit?

If a student understood that my course was organized according to this schema:

  • Definitions of concepts
  • Institutional facts or findings
  • Major theories or models
  • Ability to apply the concepts and institutional facts and findings

Ability to apply economic theories or models to derive insights about some issue or problem,

I think they would have a better chance of learning what the course offers.

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12 Responses to What is learning (2)?

  1. Jeff says:

    I understand and appreciate the need to make course objectives more concrete, but isn’t it possible (and useful) to have abstract and concrete objectives for a course?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Tell me more Jeff. Is it possible? Sure, but how do you think it might be useful? (I have my own ideas.)

    – Steve

  3. Jeff says:

    By useful, I mean that while concrete objectives can give students a better sense of the specifics of the class (and hopefully do better in the nuts and bolts of the course), abstract objectives give them some sense of the larger goals that might be broader (and necessarily more vague) than content or skill-specific goals. [Here I’m thinking of potentially disciplinary or even university-wide objectives, such as: learning to process, analyze, and present information in a clear, useful manner.] It’s not a box you can easily check off, but it is an objective for every one of my classes, one that I can approach through a variety of concrete objectives. [For more on the box-checking phenomenon, see Jerry’s comments at http://jerryslezak.net/blogtime/index.php/2005/04/08/how_many_posts_do_i_need_to_make_to_pass and on Gardner’s site at http://www.gardnercampbell.net/blog1/?p=186#comments%5D

  4. Very interesting thread here. Tricky. Here’s another thought. I want my students to know things, to be able to do things, and to demonstrate understanding. That last level, I would argue, distinguishes education from training. I’d further argue that a liberal arts curriculum most stubbornly (if not always most effectively) looks to “understanding” as the highest and most profound learning outcome. And I currently believe that a liberal arts curriculum is the best way to promote and demonstrate understanding. With understanding, one can make powerful connections and move toward genuine innovation. But how does one demonstrate understanding? How does one measure understanding? And one more night thought: it’s easy to fake understanding (we call it bulls***), especially if the fakery, as so often happens, is built on copping a ‘tude, dude.

    I suspect that much public cynicism about the humanities in higher education these days stems from a deep and not unwarranted suspicion that we’ve reduced understanding to attitude. Attitude is part of learning and part of understanding too, but not when attitude itself is reduced to ideology.

  5. Jeff says:

    I don’t feel like it’s that easy to fake understanding. Once beyond any surface information, BS is fairly clear as just that, at least in my experience. [Maybe I’m not understanding what you mean by attitude.]

    My sense about the public cynicism toward the humanities in higher ed is that it stems in part from from an inability to easily test what we teach (or to clearly perceive the “value-added” experience of a liberal arts course of study).

  6. Jeff–I’m not so sanguine. Intellectual glibness (i.e., faking understanding) is pretty common in my experience. I think many of us (myself included) steer for that port when we’re in a storm.

    As for the second paragraph, I’ll bite: what is the “value-added” experience of a liberal arts course of study? What do we teach? I teach English, you teach history, Steve teaches economics, Ernie teaches computer science, but what do we teach?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Response to Jeff’s Second Comment:

    I don’t disagree with the substance of your comment. I think that the list of objectives for any course should include content and skills specific to the course as well as reference to how the course fits into the broader scheme of a major and (in our case) the liberal arts in general, perhaps what Gardner calls education. In labor economics there is a distinction between specific and general skills, where the former are useful only to the current employer while the latter are useful to other or all employers. This distinction might fit here analogously.

    Where I would differ with Jeff is that I wouldn’t describe his broad objective: “learning to process, analyze, and present information in a clear, useful manner,” as abstract. I think that within the context of his courses, students can readily understand what that means, even though it’s probably a general more than a specific skill.

    What I was criticizing in my original post was faculty who list objectives which are so abstract as to be incomprehensible to the average student.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Gardner says successful students should be able to “demonstrate understanding.” I agree. But the literature on cognitive development (Perry, etc.) observes that there are different degrees of understanding. Think about the student who answers, “I know it, but I just can’t explain it.” I suspect that what Gardner describes as “faking understanding” reflects a low level of cognition attempting to masquerade as something higher. This may be what Jeff says is easy to identify.

    It may be that faking understanding is easier to identify in some disciplines than others.

    The key question remains what Gardner posed near the end of his comment: How does one measure understanding in a given course? By the time of graduation?

    The way I would answer that question for economics students is in terms of some specific content (understanding?) and skills (demonstrating?). While the skills are specific, they are higher-order skills at the same time. Can you do that in your discipline (even if you couldn’t get consensus in your department)? If not (Gardner!), how would you define the understanding you’re seeking?

    This leads us back to the value-added question about liberal education. If we can’t define it, how do we know it exists?

  9. Jeff says:

    Ok, my answer to the question of what students should get out of a history course (and major) is that I too expect students to attain (and demonstrate) a combination of content knowledge and skills. [Having had a number of conversations about this very topic with them, I think most of my department would agree.]

    As for the larger question on value-added education, I think that generally speaking, the liberal arts experience teaches students (as I noted before) to process, analyze, and present information in a clear, useful manner, but with a sense of context (dare I say history), with an awareness of the breadth of approaches and a taste of content from various disciplines. Collectively, such an approach (ideally) produces an adaptability not as readily available to those who engage more explicitly in a “job-training program”.

    [I have to say that in this conversation I’m feeling as if I’m the one engaging in intellectual glibness. :-]

  10. Jeff says:

    Returning to the notion of objectives that began this post, what do you mean by abstract objectives if mine what still (relatively) concrete (although I would maintain many students don’t see it that way)?

  11. Anonymous says:


    I think a good example of an abstract objective is “critical thinking.” Many liberal arts faculty, including myself, see teaching critical thinking as one of our objectives. And yet, I doubt that few introductory students have any concrete idea of what that means.

  12. Pingback: A Radical Revision of My Introductory Course | Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

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