Improving productivity with intended learning outcomes

September 22nd, 2008 by james

"Well, it's round, apple-y and …"

It’s now September and with the turning of the leaves comes the start of another academic year. After more than 20 years of conditioning, I still see this as the true start of the new year so rather than wait until January, I tend to make my productivity resolutions now. But even if you prefer to wait until the snow flies, you’ll know that pausing to reflect on your past achievements and future goals is an important part of being productive.

I want to introduce the idea of intended learning outcomes (ILOs) as a template for planning your productivity. Planning is a key part of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system but it’s perhaps an overlooked one. I think part of this problem is that it can be difficult to coordinate plans over the various recommended time horizons: career, 5 years, this year, this week, etc. ILOs help overcome this obstacle by clearly defining what you hope to learn and over what period.

An intended learning outcome is therefore simply a normative statement of your intended learning over a specific period. They are typically used in the design of courses, modules and learning sessions by helping students and teachers understand the scope of a particular lesson and how it fits with other content. For example, in a teaching situation, a set of ILOs might be:

By the end of this lecture, students should be able to:

  • list three key features of apples
  • compare apples and oranges
  • assess whether an unknown fruit is an apple

This simple example shows the main features of a well-written ILO:

  • they contain a clear timeframe.
  • they should be SMART; that is, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Note for example that the first LO states exactly how many apple features students should be able to list.
  • they should be phrased using an infinitive verb, chosen to represent an appropriate range of cognitive learning classes. Table 1 of this helpful ILO guide lists the various levels and some sample verbs. For example, to test surface-style knowledge-based learning you may wish to use verbs such as “list” or “recall”. However to test deeper understanding of a concept, higher level verbs like “evaluate” or “argue” can be used. (See here for more on surface versus deep learning styles).
  • they should transparently support assessment. That is, as a teacher, you could easily design a test to assess how well you had taught the appley-lesson and similarly students would know exactly what was expected of them.
  • Although not explicitly shown here, ILOs should also fit in with other objectives. They may for example be guided by overall course objectives.

Adopting ILOs for personal productivity requires very little modification. From the points above:

  • Time frame: You still need to be clear about the time frame of your intended activities. In a later post, I’ll talk a bit about assessing your progress against ILOs but the early tip is to try and align the time frame of your ILOs to existing performance evaluations, such as your annual performance review.
  • SMART-ness: They should still be SMART goals.
  • Verbs and cognitive learning: This one may require some modification. Chances are you won’t find it very useful to list three new facts in a year’s time. However you may wish to divide your goals into similar easily assessed things, like “Publish two papers” along with more abstract things. Remember though you want to be specific: try and avoid statements like “Understand post-modernist geography” (bit of a losing battle that…) and go for something like “Write a two-page summary of major themes in post-modern geography” instead.
  • Assessment: Again we’ll tackle this in a later post but try to keep your annual performance review in mind while writing your ILOs.
  • Dove-tailing with other objectives: This is a key one. GTD advocates planning your goals over a series of different time horizons. If you write ILOs or other productivity statements for, say a five-year horizon, you should be able to use these to guide the creation and assessment of your “next-year” learning objectives.

In the next post, I’ll look at how to make the most of intended learning outcomes.

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5 Responses to “Improving productivity with intended learning outcomes”

  1. JohannNo Gravatar Says:

    This looks like a useful approach. I think it’s interesting to look at which aspects of my work I am already planning according to these principles, and where I am not and am rather “muddling through”.
    I’m already looking forward to the next posts!

  2. Dr. Sanford AranoffNo Gravatar Says:

    There are a lot of words in your ILO’s. All well and good. However, the bottom line is that we must understand how students think. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  3. srednarbNo Gravatar Says:

    You have a really really very comprehensive guide in posting for your target achievements for the coming year. I’m used to just listing them all, small or big and I usually end up not assessing at the end of the year because maybe I’m afraid to see that there is something that has been left hanging by a thread not accomplished. This usually sends me some message of not getting the right accomplishments but since I read it here. I’d rather be wiser today on my ILOs as well as my GTDs. I like your idea here.

    Cheer to the new ways I learned here from you. You must be really quite an achiever to be able to make something as almost complete and definite here in your guide. THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR SHARING THESE TO US.

  4. Academic Productivity » Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most productive of them all? Says:

    [...] Academic Productivity A survival guide for the 21st century researcher « Improving productivity with intended learning outcomes [...]

  5. NLP BoiseNo Gravatar Says:

    It seems that what you may be going for is an epistimology, thinking about thinking and thinking about learning. You have an interesting approach.

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