Defining learning objectives: Pre-semester, and all semester

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Defining learning objectives: Pre-semester, all semester

Jose Gomez-Ibanez

José A. (Tony) Gómez-Ibáñez, Derek C. Bok Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy, who holds appointments at the GSD and HKS, defines the learning objectives of his course prior to the start of the semester and references them to frame each individual class session: “I use the first five minutes to place each class in the course – ‘The last class we talked about X and today we want to see how those ideas might apply to Y.’”

The benefits: Deliberately and specifically identifying what students should come away with each class places the focus on the learning process, rather than the specifics of a particular unit topic or case – Gómez-Ibáñez teaches economics, infrastructure, and transportation policy, primarily employing the case method.

The challenges: Even with ample pre-semester planning, preparing thoughtful class introductions is time consuming. Gómez-Ibáñez first rereads the case and his old notes, and then handwrites a new set of learning goals “so they’re imprinted in my brain.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • The last five minutes of each class session are as important as the first five: “I ask myself, ‘what do you want the wrap up to be? What conversations do you have to have to get them there?’”
  • The rest of class time, structured into 20-30 minute conversations, plays its own role in the learning plan. Sometimes referred to as pastures, these conversations are where students “graze for a while to get to the end that you want, the issues that you want them to think about and retain.”
  • The board plan keeps the class on track, even when ideas are raised outside the current conversation.

Bottom line: Learning goal planning is an essential framework, but it does not replace student learning. For this reason, Gómez-Ibáñez does not distribute lesson takeaways: “For every student, the takeaway is going to be slightly different. I give my version, but I guarantee you in their notes it’s colored by their interpretation of the conversation that we had and tailored to their needs and their experiences.”