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Two Conflicting Views: Which Comes First, The Objective or The Test?

As an undergraduate student teacher, I was first required to write learning objectives, then lecture notes and lab exercises and finally the examination. This order seemed logical to me until a graduate school professor advocated writing the examination first, then the objectives and finally the course content. I experimented with this new approach and have since adopted it.

I discussed this model with my undergraduate professor and she strongly disagreed with what she considers "teaching to the test." Why? If "the test" is an objective measure of educational goals, what’s wrong with using measurement devices as a focal point in the educational design? Consider the following situation.

A practitioner must recognize and treat hypoxemia from pulse oximetry values and so must be able to recall the critical value for SO2 before deciding to supply the patient with supplemental O2. Therefore, even in a foundation course like physiology, it is reasonable to require that the students recall this information without any prompting. With this educational goal in mind, I develop the following test item to measure the students’ knowledge.

Plot the oxyhemoglobin dissociation curve using the textbook normal values for arterial blood, venous blood, P50, and the PO2 that correlates to an SO2 of 90%.

This item forces the student to recall the important points on the curve and also tests their understanding of the relationship. If they are able to recall and plot the points, then connect the points forming the expected sigmoidal curve, I can assume with some confidence that they understand the relationship.

This particular exam item could literally be cut and pasted into the syllabus as an objective: "The student should be able to plot ...."

That was a pretty easy example and frequently you will need to use more effort in writing the objective. But I still contend that once you have considered the ultimate goal and devised the best way to measure the students' mastery, writing objectives is easy.

I doubt I’ll ever reach consensus with my undergrad prof, but I think she’ll agree that no matter which method you choose:

  • A good objective clearly defines the behavior that students must adopt
  • A good test question reliably measures that behavior, and
  • Both must be constructed with a constant focus on the final outcome.