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Developing Course Objectives for Chemistry

metaphor for developing objectives

Before designing a lesson for the Internet or for the face-to-face classroom it is vital to have developed objectives. We must know what it is we want the students to do before we can write a lesson to help them achieve those objectives.

Consider the following objectives:
Understand the concept of gas pressure.
Know how to solve stoichiometry problems.

What do they really mean?
These are objectives that might be found in a typical introductory chemistry course.
But what do they really mean? When instructors say that they want students to understand the concept of gas pressure or know how to solve stoichiometry problems they know more or less, what is meant by that. How do students know whether or not they understand the concept of gas pressure? Does that mean performing pressure unit conversions? Does it mean describing how a barometer works? Does it mean knowing that the relationship between temperature and pressure is direct? How do they know when they know how to solve stoichiometry problems? Does that mean only common problems? Does it mean limiting reactant (a type of stoichiometry problem) problems? Does it mean problems involving density?

Interpreting student responses to those objectives
If we were to ask a student to explain the concept of gas pressure he/she could say that "Gas pressure is the force the gas exerts per unit area". Since this is the definition as worded in a typical textbook we can't really be sure that a student has a grasp of gas pressure or is only quoting a memorized definition. Unfortunately we cannot look inside a person's head to determine whether or not they understand gas pressure.

Behavioral objectives
Instructors need to write objectives that are not vague and that produce observable action. Behavioral objectives are based on an action by the student that we can measure. "A behavioral objective indicates what the student should be able to do or say when he has finished the lesson or, over the long run, when he as completed his education". This quote is from R. C. Anderson and G. W. Faust, Educational Psychology - The Science of Instruction and Learning. 1973. Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc.

Rewording the gas pressure objective
Stating what students need to do to demonstrate by action that they "understand" gas pressure involves stating many different behaviors. Some of them are given below. There are many more.

Be able to convert pressure given in either units of atmospheres, mm Hg, inches Hg, torr, or Pa to any of the other units, to the correct number of significant figures.
Memorize the number of mm Hg in 1 atmosphere, the number of torr in 1 atmosphere, the number of inches of Hg in 1 atmosphere, and the number of Pa in 1 atmosphere.
Predict whether gas pressure increases or decreases as temperature increases or decreases.
Predict whether gas pressure increases or decreases as altitude increases or decreases.
List the parts of a barometer that measures atmospheric pressure.
All the behavioral objectives in the list above describe observable and measurable activities.

Does statement of behavioral objectives that are measureable prevent students from developing higher order thinking capabilities?
Evidence suggests that students who have detailed behavioral objectives learn more than students in classes that do not. Whether or not having a list of activities that must be mastered stifles creativity and higher order thinking has not been proven.

The Concept of Entering Behaviors
Entering behaviors are "skills and knowledge, specifically related to course objectives, which the student possesses before instruction". This quote is from R. C. Anderson and G. W. Faust, Educational Psychology - The Science of Instruction and Learning. 1973. Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc. To produce behavioral objectives that students can achieve, instructors must accurately understand the entering behaviors students possess. For example, students will not be able to convert pressure from one unit to another if they cannot solve an equation for an unknown variable. An entering behavior is solving algebraic equations with one unknown variable.

What happens if students don't possess the anticipated entering behavior? What if they cannot solve algebraic equations, but the instructor designs lessons assuming that they can? Students will not be able to fulfill some of the behavioral objectives and the lesson will fail.

 

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