While it’s natural to focus on theory and concepts when designing your course, it’s equally important to think about the net result you want to achieve in terms of student learning. Learning objectives focus on just that—they articulate what students should be able to know, do and create by the end of a course. They’re also the key to creating a course in which courseware, context, teaching strategies, student learning activities and assessments all work together to support students’ achievement of these objectives.
This guide presents essential information about how to write effective, measurable learning objectives that will create a strong structure and instructional design for your course.
Table of contents
- What are learning objectives?
- Learning objectives vs. learning outcomes
- How to write learning objectives
- Tools for developing effective learning objectives
- Examples of learning objectives
What are learning objectives?
Learning objectives identify what the learner will know and be able to do by the end of a course. Grounded in three primary learning areas—attitudes, skills and knowledge—clear learning objectives help organize student progress throughout the curriculum.
Learning objectives vs. learning outcomes
While the terms “learning objectives” and “learning outcomes” are often used interchangeably, there are subtle differences between them.
One key distinction is that learning objectives are a description of the overarching goals for a course or unit. Learning outcomes, on the other hand, outline goals for the individual lessons comprising that course or unit. Learning outcomes should be measurable and observable, so students can gauge their progress toward achieving the broader course objectives.
Another distinction between the two concepts is that learning objectives focus on the educator or institution’s educational goals for the course. For students, goals and progress in a specific course or program are measured by learning outcomes.
How to write learning objectives
Learning objectives help students understand how each lesson relates to the previous one. This way, students can understand how each course concept relates to the course’s goals, as well as degree or course goals. When writing measurable student learning objectives, instructors should ensure that they are structured in a way that makes it easy for students to assess their own progress, as well as the way forward in their learning.
Strong learning objectives should:
- Focus on what students should learn in a course rather than what the instructor plans to teach
- Break down each task into an appropriate sequence of skills students can practice to reach each objective
- Make use of action-oriented language
- Be clear and specific so students understand what they will learn and why they are learning it
Learning objectives should also be measurable. In order to be effective, they must lay out what success looks like. This way, students can accurately gauge their progress and performance. From these criteria, students should be able to clearly identify when they have completed an element of the course and are ready to move on to the next one.
Key elements to consider
By answering certain fundamental questions, you can begin the process of developing clear learning objectives armed with the information to craft them effectively.
- Which higher-order skills or practical abilities do you want students to possess after attending your course that they did not possess beforehand?
- What do your students need to know and understand in order to get from where they are now to where you want them to be by the end of the course?
- Which three main items do you want students to take away from your course if they learn nothing else?
3 steps to writing learning objectives
Writing strong and effective learning objectives is a matter of three simple steps:
- Explain the precise skill or task the student will perform.
- Describe how the student will execute the given skill or task and demonstrate relevant knowledge and competency—a quiz, test, group discussion, presentation, research project.
- Lay out the specific criteria you will use to measure student performance at the end of the learning experience.
Tools for developing effective learning objectives
Used to develop effective learning objectives, Bloom’s Taxonomy is an educational framework that is designed to help educators identify not only subject matter but also the depth of learning they want students to achieve. Then, these objectives are used to create assessments that accurately report on students’ progress towards these outcomes.
The revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (2001) comprises three domains—cognitive, affective and psychomotor. In creating effective learning objectives, most educators choose to focus on the cognitive domain. The cognitive domain prioritizes intellectual skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and creating a knowledge base. The levels of this domain span from simple memorization designed to build the knowledge of learners, to creating a new idea or working theory based on previously learned information. In this domain, learners are expected to progress linearly through the levels, starting at “remember” and concluding at “create,” in order to reach subject mastery.
The following are the six levels of the cognitive domain:
These action verbs and sample learning objectives are mapped to each level of Bloom’s Taxonomy’s cognitive domain. Here, we provide a breakdown of how to implement each level in your classroom. Some examples of action verbs useful for articulating each of the levels within the cognitive domain include:
- Remembering: Define, list, recall, relate, state
- Sample learning objective: Upon completion of a geography workshop, students will be able to list the different layers of rock in a given natural structure.
- Understanding: Describe, explain, identify, review, translate, summarize, paraphrase, inquire
- Sample learning objective: By the end of a Sociology lesson, students will be able to identify instruments for collecting data and measurements for the conducting and planning of research.
- Applying: Assign, demonstrate, employ, interpret, practice, use
- Sample learning objective: After a lesson on literary analysis, students will be able to assign a cohesive reading list for an imagined class on a particular subtopic within the literary realm.
- Analyzing: Appraise, categorize, compare, debate, differentiate, examine
- Sample learning objective: At the end of a course in global economics, students will be able to analyze the economic theories behind various macroeconomic policies and accurately categorize them.
- Evaluating: Assess, compare, evaluate, measure, research, value
- Sample learning objective: Upon completion of a course on the history of war, students will be able to compare and contrast any two historic wars using timelines of the respective conflicts.
- Creating: Assemble, compose, construct, design, diagnose, predict, formulate, organize, propose, refute
- Sample learning objective: Upon completion of the astronomy course, students will be able to predict the motion and appearance of celestial objects and curate data on the subject from multiple sources and communicate procedures, results and conclusions properly.
The SMART strategy
Simply put, learning objectives are goals for teaching and learning. They provide a sense of direction, motivation and focus. By setting objectives, you can provide yourself and your students with a target to aim for. A straightforward way to set realistic, achievable expectations is through the SMART strategy, ensuring objectives are:
- Specific: Unambiguous, well-defined and clear.
- Measurable: Designed with specific criteria of how to measure your progress toward the accomplishment of the goal in mind.
- Achievable: Attainable and possible to achieve.
- Realistic: Within reach, realistic, and relevant to the course or program’s purpose.
- Timely: With a clearly defined timeline, including a starting date and a target date, to ensure you can set mini-milestones and check-ins throughout the duration of your course.
By writing measurable learning objectives you can better choose and organize content and use that to select the most appropriate instructional strategies and assessments to meet the learning goals for your course.
Examples of learning objectives
- Good example: By the end of this course, students will be able to identify the strengths of formal vs. informal language by advancing through the following three levels of knowledge and skill:
- Using language formally vs. informally
- Explaining how to write and speak in each type of language
- Teaching others how to choose and use the appropriate type of language in different situations
- Good example: Upon completion of this course, students will possess the ability to identify and develop instruments for collecting data and measures for executing academic research.
- Poor example: After completing this course, students will be able to explain the organizational structure.
- Poor example: Students will comprehend the importance of the Civil War.
The first two are good learning objectives because they explain the exact skill or task the student will perform, as well as how they will be tested and evaluated on their performance. The second examples are poor because they are vague and do not include how the knowledge acquired will be evaluated.
Student learning improves when they know what is expected of them. When learning objectives are clear, students are better prepared for a deeper approach to learning. This means that students seek meaning, relate and extend ideas, look for patterns and underlying principles, check evidence, examine arguments critically and engage with course content in a more sophisticated way.
For instructors, this means a more engaged and connected classroom community that works together. By setting clear guidelines for what you intend to teach and for students to learn, you can ensure that you are laying the foundation for a successful and more motivating educational experience.
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Marsh, P.A. (2007). What is known about student learning outcomes and how does it relate to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning? International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1(2), article 22.
Trigwell, K. & Prosser, M. (1991). Improving the quality of student learning: the influence of learning context and student approaches to learning on learning outcomes. Higher Education, 22(3), 251–266.