Bringing ILOs to life for students
Dr Amit N. Jinabhai is a Senior Lecturer in Optometry, working in the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health. He won a Teaching Excellence Award (2021) for his ability to teach challenging content in innovative and engaging ways, to positive effect on both student feedback and performance. Amit is also a former winner of the Association of Optometrists (AOP) ‘national’ Lecturer of the Year Award. In this post, Amit tells us the steps he has taken to try to improve his students’ understanding of, and engagement with, intended learning outcomes (ILOs) and the improvements that this can make to learning and engagement.
Most lecturers are aware of the need to publish their unit’s intended learning outcomes (ILOs) within their programme’s handbook and on their unit’s Blackboard site. Good teaching practice suggests that each individual lecture’s ILOs should also be presented near the start of every lecture. But is this enough ‘exposure’ for our students to fully grasp the value of their ILOs?
Revealing the issue
My experience has been that only a handful of students in a cohort ever understood the true value of their ILOs. However, I could never quite put my finger on why this was the case.
In September 2018, I took over a first-year teaching unit. In week 2 of the first semester, using a basic ‘show of hands’, I found that none of these brand new first-year Optometry undergraduates ‘actively’ revisited each lecture’s individual ILOs whilst reading through the lecture notes that I provided for them.
More positively, Blackboard’s ‘statistics tracking’ tool showed me that 15 students had visited the unit’s overall ILOs presented on my unit’s Blackboard site, and 23 students had visited the ILOs listed in my unit’s ‘syllabus’ document, within this 2-week timeframe.
This led me to reflect on:
- Whether ILOs are not as widely used in secondary and further education (FE) as they are in higher education (HE)?
- Whether all new undergraduates should be given guidance on how to use ILOs?
Having never lectured first-year students before, I wondered if I had previously made some incorrect assumptions about their learning practices. Naturally, I decided to take some positive action!
What I tried first
I started by instructing my students to ‘actively’ review each lecture’s ILOs at both the start and the end of each lecture. To help them with this task I added a final slide to all of my lectures which simply replicated the ILOs presented at the beginning of each lecture. I also verbally explained that the purpose of ILOs was two-fold, in that they served both staff and students alike, with benefits such as the following.
- ILOs allow staff to break each lecture/practical lab session down into exactly what knowledge our students must learn in order to develop all of the key skills for that particular unit.
- ILOs are what staff aim to assess in our summative and formative assessments, to ensure that students have grasped the key information and developed the key skills needed to ‘pass’ all aspects of the unit.
- ILOs are used by our external examiners to judge if the learning outcomes are appropriate to meet the level for that stage in the degree (e.g., year 1, year 2 … etc.), and to judge the academic standard of that unit versus a similar unit at their own institution.
- ILOs allow students to focus on the key applications of their new knowledge in order to develop new skills which they will need for their future careers.
- ILOs summarise the key areas in which students should expect to be assessed.
- ILOs provide students with a “checklist” against which they can double-check that they have not accidentally missed off any crucial parts of a lecture/practical lab.
- ILOs can be used to hold the lecturer(s) accountable for their learning materials, in that all of the ILOs should be covered within the unit’s materials/directed reading.
Using this approach of highlighting the ILOs and outlining their importance, I found only a nominal increase (up to 16%) in the number of students who ‘actively’ revisited their ILOs whilst reviewing their lecture materials.
Adapting my approach
This prompted me to amend the presentation of my opening and final slides; in particular, to depict the final slide as a ‘checklist’. I also reworded the slides’ headings to use phrases that would be more meaningful to students and have a greater impact on their understanding of the purpose and usefulness of their ILOs – see Figure 1 and Figure 2.
Figure 1: An example of the opening slide to one of my lectures. This slide sets the scene of what the lecture will cover and what students can expect to learn by reviewing all of this lecture’s learning materials.
Figure 2: An example of the ‘final’ slide taken from the same lecture referred to in Figure 1. This slide presents a ‘checklist’ of what the lecture covered and what students should have learned from this lecture’s learning materials.
In the opening slide, I chose to emphasise the phrase “What will I learn today?” Phrasing this as a question which is ‘looking forwards’ would allow students to consider their current knowledge from the unit and how this new lecture will add further value to their learning by exploring new topics, theoretical concepts and calculations.
In the final slide, I chose to emphasise the phrase “What I have learned today!” This specific phraseology, coupled with a subtle change in tense, would allow students to better appreciate that these points list what they should now understand and appreciate as new knowledge and/or new skills, which add to what they had learned in previous sessions.
The use of the final slide as a checklist was also reinforced verbally at the end of each lecture, to encourage students to ‘tick off’ each ILO once they felt that they understood that particular aspect and were comfortable with the associated theory and calculations. I chose to take this approach as I know, only too well, the satisfaction I feel when I can tick off the things that I have completed from my own ‘to do’ list! Also, ticking off the ILOs would help students to visualise their progress, whilst simultaneously identifying any areas that they might have potentially missed off.
I found that these latter changes in my approach resulted in a significant shift in my students’ behaviour. In a doodle poll conducted one week before my unit’s examination, 58 out of 71 responding students (~82%) reported that they ‘actively’ reviewed their ILOs whilst assimilating the information from each lecture, and that ‘ticking off’ each ILO milestone made them feel “positive” and provided “a sense of achievement” about the progress they were making in the unit.
Overall, the feedback comments that I received from students in my unit evaluation survey were extremely positive, with a selection of free comments identifying this focus on ILOs as a strength:
“The learning objectives are given in each PowerPoint at the start, so I know what I am going to learn about. And at the end, which I liked a lot because I use it as a checklist at the end to see if I understood the content in the lecture. All the learning objectives have been met.”
“…each learning objective was successfully covered within the lecture itself, so we did not have to rely on textbook and internet sources to gather information as all the information we need to answer each learning objective is on the lecture notes.”
“Structured lesson. Very specific and structured learning objectives. Passionately delivered … The lectures were organised very well”
“I found the learning objectives very helpful as it helped me to arrange my notes well, this helped me prepare well for the exam …”
Not done yet
Whilst the proportion of students ‘actively’ reviewing their ILOs for my unit’s lectures remains fairly high (~75%), there are still some students who never adopt this approach. So, in an attempt to further improve this aspect for 2021-22, I have very recently introduced a short ‘self-reflection task’ at the end of each lecture, which fits in alongside my ‘checklist’ approach (see Figure 2). The purpose is for students to reflect on and ‘rank’ their ILOs, starting with the ILO that they found “the most intellectually challenging” – see Figure 3 below.
I emphasise that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers; rather, this task is designed to allow each student to openly reflect on WHY they found those particular aspects of the lecture challenging, and to consider HOW they will plan to improve their understanding of those particular areas.
I allow students to complete this reflection task multiple times, so they can explore how their perceptions change over time and/or with additional studying.
Figure 3: An example of the short self-reflection task presented at the end of each of my lectures (to work alongside the ‘checklist’ approach shown in Figure 2).
I also hope that the information I collate from this approach will provide me with a clearer indication of exactly which aspects students find the most challenging, allowing me the opportunity to provide targeted additional support and formative assessment within those specific areas.
Reflecting on this approach
My first-year undergraduates seemed to benefit from perceiving their ILOs as educational ‘milestones’ that they should strive to achieve within each lecture/practical lab whilst they try to assimilate the complex information delivered throughout my Geometrical Optics unit.
My latest approach of asking my students to ‘self-reflect’ on their ILOs and to consider HOW they plan to overcome the ones that they found the most intellectually challenging aligns very closely to the reflective practice endorsed by our Healthcare Regulator, the General Optical Council (GOC), which is fundamental to a registered Optometrist’s continuing professional development. If successful, I am planning to roll this approach out for the other three units that I lead on, as the Unit Coordinator, to further boost student engagement.
By exploring these different approaches, I have learned that first-year undergraduates require more guidance about what ILOs mean for them. In my humble opinion, ILOs can act as a powerful tool to drive student engagement and to encourage students to take full responsibility for their own learning.
The approaches I have taken may be of interest to other educators who are also keen to engage their students with their ILOs to improve the quality of their learning experience.
To find out more about Amit’s work contact him by email.