Which Works Better: Learning Objectives or Pre-Quizzes?

As readers of this column, and anyone who has ever attended my one of my workshops knows, I am a limited fan of learning objectives (LOs). I do think they are useful, and even essential, for two purposes:

  1. Structuring content and ensuring all important content is covered when creating learning materials.
  2. Creating fair, valid, and reliable exams.

I am not a fan of another common use of LOs — the list at the beginning of a course/module/lesson, which typically appears in the form of: “At the completion of this lesson, you will be able to,” followed by a list of knowledge to be acquired or skills to be performed. I covered this topic in detail in a previous blog post.

I am, however, a fan of “Priming Exams.” A priming exam is a quiz given prior to a learning experience. Quizzing learners on material they have not yet learned might seem counterintuitive, but research has shown that the attempt to answer questions, even though the student will inevitably answer questions incorrectly, “primes” the student to learn the material in the lesson. Here’s one such study:

So I was intrigued to find a  study that directly compares the benefits of LOs versus priming exams:

In this study, researchers conducted a series of experiments comparing three modes of “pre-learning:”

  • Learning objectives (those appearing before a lesson and those interleaved within the lesson)
  • Fact-based statements before the lesson, where LOs were converted into statements of fact containing the actual content
  • Pre-tests, both multiple choice and open-ended questions, with and without feedback

So, for example, an LO such as, “In this lesson, you will learn where the mirror neurons are located,” was converted into a fact-based statement: “In the first passage you will learn that the mirror neurons are located in the ventral premotor cortex.”

And in the pre-test, the LO was converted into a question: “Where are the mirror neurons located?” In this case, “The ventral premotor cortex” would be one of the choices.

The researchers conducted a number of experiments comparing the learning effectiveness of no LOs, different placement of LOs, fact-based statements, and different types of pre-tests. We’ll focus on the results of the experiment that compared:

  • Interleaved LOs
  • Interleaved Fact Statements
  • Interleaved M/C questions

Students studied a lesson under all three conditions and then were tested on their knowledge retention. The final tests results were:

As you can see, the students who were presented with fact-based statements outperformed the students who were presented with LOs, but the difference was not statistically significant.

However, the students who attempted to answer the M/C questions (even though they only answered 35% correctly) outperformed the other two groups and the differences were statistically significant.

To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, the experiment that compared using LOs (both at the beginning and interleaved) to using no LOs at all showed that using LOs improved learning:

Thus, my belief that quizzing beats presenting was confirmed, but my belief that the use of LOs has no effect on learning outcomes was incorrect.

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