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Now and Later: Setting Objectives for EMS Learners

Setting Objectives for EMS Learners

Educators know even high-quality (summative) testing at the end of a program demonstrates only that a student is competent at the moment of testing and is not predictive of their performance on a real call. To help students apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes learned in the classroom in real situations, educators must incorporate short-, medium-, and long-term objectives into their programs.

Short-Term Objectives

While it may feel like students’ ability to focus is declining recently, as far back as 1978 a study published in The Lancet, “Medical Student Concentration During Lectures,” suggested the ability to retain information sharply declined after a maximum of only 10–15 minutes. Later studies agreed that the human brain can only absorb so much theoretical information at a time. Information begins to fall away after about 15 minutes or so if the brain doesn’t get a break. This doesn’t mean all lessons must be wrapped up that quickly; it simply means that after about that amount of time, instructors should have the students engage with the material in a different way. 

Simply switching up the lesson to work on information from a different angle can help students engage different parts of their brains and better retain and apply what they’re learning. Educators should focus on application steps that will help students achieve the short-term objectives sometimes known as interim or formative objectives.

An effective practice is to use activities that help the student apply the required knowledge, skills, or attitudes using the appropriate domain. 

  • Are students encountering new knowledge? Have them talk it out. 
  • Are students learning new skills? Have them try them hands-on. 
  • Are you seeking to build new attitudes? Give students scenarios and see how they approach them. 

Including application steps for each short-term objective will provide opportunity for performance feedback and make lessons more fun and engaging. Most important, it will help students apply what they’ve learned so they can move forward to their medium- and long-term goals. 

Medium-Term Objectives

If formative or interim objectives are short-term, then the summative or course objectives can be considered medium-term. Think of medium-term as the duration students are in your education program: minutes to days to many months. If you’ve structured your program effectively for students to meet the short-term objectives, they should be well on their way to achieving the medium-term objectives and passing the summative assessments too.

It may seem odd to refer to final course objectives as medium-term, but doing so may help educators keep a crucial lesson in mind: Learning doesn’t end when students leave the classroom. As students approach the end of an education program of any length, the educator should ensure they know what their next steps are. In some cases the next steps are other resources or programs that delve more deeply into related topics. In other cases the next step may be a higher degree, level of certification, or licensure. Regardless of the type or length of the program taught, EMS educators must ensure that students who successfully complete their classes understand they’ve learned only a portion of the knowledge available right now. If they wish to maintain their skills, they must be ready to have a long-term view of learning and professional development.

Long-Term Objectives

It can be easy for educators, like students, to see only the next short- or medium-term objective in front of them. The very concept of lifelong learning means that, as educators, we must provide students with the long-term context in which a lesson is delivered. Virtually every education session should have elements of lifelong learning baked in.

In the long term educators must leave students with the knowledge that what they’ve learned today is based on the limited understanding our profession has in this moment. This can and most likely will change in the future. For students to have longevity—and for the sake of our profession—EMS educators must help their students achieve their short-, medium-, and, yes, even long-term goals. 

Rommie L. Duckworth, LP, is a dedicated emergency responder and award-winning educator with more than 25 years working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and public and private emergency medical services. He is currently a career fire captain and paramedic EMS coordinator. Contact him via

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