If you had to defend the value of a sexuality education program, and had to defend your own competence as a sexuality educator, what would you say? How would you show administrators and students that you know what you’re doing? The key to convincing others is first assuring ourselves, isn’t it? Spelling out a clear plan for ourselves is key to being a great educator. According to Bruess and Schroeder (2014), writing goals and explicit (no pun intended) learning objectives is the most important piece of planning sexuality education. When we’re intentional with the choices we make in the classroom, we’re thoughtful about writing general learning goals. Being explicit about how we will achieve those goals, and how we will assess the actual impact we’re had on learners makes for effective education, and not just a lazy “things must have gone well just because everyone had fun” attitude.
The onus is on us to take responsibility for students’ learning, and not just whether they had fun in our classroom (though of course that’s important, too!). Explicit objectives help us to stay focused on our goals for learning. For example, if the goal for a lesson is, “Students will know how human reproduction occurs.” All of the learning objectives for a lesson with this goal must then explicitly describe how the process of learning should go, and then provide ways to measure the learning that actually happened.
One formula for writing explicit objective, which contain all of the above, uses four parts: behavior, learning, condition, and performance (E. Schroeder, personal communication, September 21, 2014).
Because the example given is a cognitive goal, the behavior component would be well served to use an action word from Bloom’s Taxonomy, like “to learn,” “to explain,” “to design,” etc. (Estes, Mintz, & Gunter, 2011). It’s a verb that describes what the learners will be expected to be able to do with the content they are learning. If our general goal is to make sure students learn about reproduction, it makes sense to have a lesson about anatomy. A specific objective statement about just recognizing the parts of female and male reproductive systems might begin with:
“Students will be able to identify.”
What the students will identify is the next component of a well-written objective. Learning describes what the educator intends for students to gain or, the actual content of the change occurring in the brains of learners, as Piaget described (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). In this case, the learning is about introducing information about body parts:
“Students will be able to identify major components of human reproductive anatomy.”
This is often where educators stop when writing learning objectives. But in order to write explicit learning objectives, two elements are missing. The condition is the element that describes how the educator will facilitate the specific learning in question. This is where we can plug in our favorite activities, but only if they actually fulfill the goals of a lesson. If they don’t, the process of getting explicit helps us to know how we can tweak and edit activities to suit our current needs. For example, maybe we have a lot of visual learners, and would like to use a coloring worksheet, and the one we already have includes only outlines of the parts, and nothing else. For the purpose of getting students to identify those parts, as stated in our objective so far, we would need to edit the sheet, perhaps by adding a word bank with organ names, and spaces to label the parts along with coloring them. Our explicit statement might now look like this:
“Students will be able to identify major components of human reproductive anatomy by coloring and labeling an anatomy worksheet.”
Last is the performance element. This is the most useful component for sexuality educators to be explicit about, because it explains how we will assess whether the intended learning actually happened or not. It spells out the relationship between goals and actual outcomes. Our example so far promises how students will identify anatomy through our intervention, but not how accurately. Both of the following examples work, depending on the educator’s intentions for learning.
“Students will be able to identify major components of human reproductive anatomy by coloring and labeling an anatomy worksheet correctly.”
“Students will be able to identify major components of human reproductive anatomy by coloring and labeling an anatomy worksheet at least 80% correctly.”
It’s important to note that this example was about a cognitive goal. Affective and motor-sensory goals require slightly different language, but the same intentionality (Estes, Mintz, & Gunter, 2011). For an affective goal about values clarification regarding sexual orientation, an explicit statement might look like the following:
“Students will be able to clarify their own attitudes regarding the spectrum of sexual orientations by writing journal entries in response to provided prompts.”
In the case of affective learning, students are asked to know something about their own feelings, attitudes and values, so the performance piece should reflect this. The performance piece is simply written as “their own” in the example, but these words code for an awareness of students’ own affective experiences. Thus, something like a guided journaling activity would be appropriate.
For a psychomotor goal, where the learner is expected to actually physically do something like correctly apply a condom in a pressurized situation, the activity and performance pieces must address these, and must be observable in the classroom. The following example would work in this case, because the chosen activity involves students physically labeling and doing the actual motions of putting a condom on a phallus, in the context of stress, because it’s a race.
“Students will be able to demonstrate application of a condom to a phallus, under pressure, by successfully completing each step in a condom relay activity.”
It would be ineffective for students to experience a lecture regarding condom use, if the goal is to make sure they could physically put a condom on something penis-like, under pressure. If the goal is to make sure students knew how to put on a condom, then perhaps a lecture followed by a written exam would suffice. Or, perhaps we’d choose to do both, but these types of choices always depend on the larger goals of our intervention, as well as how much time we get to have with students.
When writing learning objectives, let’s remember: behavior (action verb), learning (content), condition (how?), and performance (how well/measurement). Let’s be explicit about how we plan to achieve our goals, and how we measure our achievements so that critics will thank us, alongside students. The examples I gave are in no way exhaustive, but hopefully illustrate the usefulness of writing objectives carefully. For me, the process of choosing the right words and making sure all the pieces are there is helpful for seeing the limits of certain types of activities, but also for clarifying what I’m actually trying to accomplish, in general. The process leaves me feeling more aware of the teaching I’m doing, and more confident that I’m going to have an effective impact on students’ learning.
Editor’s Note: Using learning, behavior, condition and performance when creating effective learning objectives was created by Dr. Konnie McCaffree. It’s a pleasure to pass on her wisdom! – E. Schroeder
Bruess, C.E., & Schroeder, E. (2014). Sexuality education: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Estes, T.H., Mintz, S.L., & Gunter, M.A. (2011). Instruction: A models approach (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: Principles and methods for effective education. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Okabe, M., & Ito, K. (2008). Color universal design (CUD): How to make figures and presentations that are friendly to colorblind people. Retrieved from http://jfly.iam.u-tokyo.ac.jp/color/