Learning objectives describe what we want students to know and be able to do by the end of a course. Objectives are the bedrock of instructional design because they guide every other decision in the development of the course.
Articulating learning objectives can be a little difficult at first, especially if you’re used to thinking about your courses topically rather than in terms of competencies. However, clear, competency-based learning objectives offer distinct benefits. They help you to:
- Prioritize content and focus on what’s most important.
- Break down content into meaningful pieces.
- Design assessments and instruction that support your objectives.
- Communicate your expectations to students.
- Help colleagues teaching the same course understand your intentions.
- Help your department understand how courses in the program fit together.
You can articulate learning objectives for virtually any unit of instruction: courses, modules, lectures, assignments, and so on. Once you start thinking in terms of objectives (if you don’t already), you’ll find this approach is helpful in every aspect of your teaching. Here are some tips for writing effective learning objectives for your course.
What Learning Objectives Look Like
Learning objectives are statements about what students should be able to know and due by the end of the course. To write a learning objective, complete this sentence:
By the end of this course (or any instructional unit), students will be able to _________.
The end of the sentence will be your learning objective. Make sure that all your objectives are:
Student-centered: They should describe what students will know or be able to do as a result of the material, not what you will teach or cover.
Active: They should describe what students will be able to do as a result of what they’re learning.
Observable: They should describe visible behavior, not inward states such as “understanding” or “appreciation.”
Specific: They should describe activities or knowledge that students can gain from your course (or other instructional unit) and not be overly broad or narrow in scope.
Think about the following: What are the key points of the course? Is there anything in particular that is essential to your field or subject (e.g., familiarity with terminology or methodology, building certain experiences)? What do you want your students to remember? What practical skills do you want them to gain?
The following chart uses some examples of weak and strong objectives (according to the above criteria) to explain why a strong objective is better for student learning.
|Weak Objective||Strong Objective||What’s the Difference?|
|This course will cover how to generate, evaluate, and document design decisions.||By the end of this course, students will be able to generate, evaluate, and document design decisions.||The weak objective describes what the instructor is going to do, which takes the focus (and the responsibility) off students. The strong objective is student focused because it describes what students will be able to do as a result of the material they learn.|
|By the end of this module, students will learn how cultures explain and treat illness differently.||By the end of this module, students will be able to document how cultures explain and treat illness differently.||The weak objective describes a passive action that is only relevant within the classroom. The strong objective is active because it describes a skill that students will be able to perform beyond the classroom.|
|By the end of this lesson, students will be able to understand the political, economic, and social causes of the Six-Day War.||By the end of this lesson, students will be able to discuss the political, economic, and social causes of the Six-Day War.||The weak objective describes an inward state (in that understanding occurs only inside one’s head), which instructors cannot easily test or evaluate. The strong objective describes an observable action (discussion) that students must physically demonstrate to show they have mastered the objective.|
|By the end of this course, students will be able to perform the duties of a nurse practitioner.||By the end of this course, students will be able to interpret a patient’s medical history.||Although the weak objective uses an active, observable verb, it is too broad to cover in a single course. The strong objective describes a specific activity that students could reasonably master in one course.|
Tips for Writing Your Learning Objectives
Experts in a given domain are often too close to their subject matter to pinpoint the discrete skills and knowledge they want their students to gain. This can make it difficult at first to identify objectives.
It can be challenging to identify student-centered action verbs for the wide variety of skills and knowledge you’d like your students to develop. With this in mind, there are many conceptual frameworks that can help. One of the most commonly-used frameworks, however, is Bloom’s Taxonomy, which identifies six cognitive domains, each of which maps to different action verbs. These suggested verbs can help you identify the appropriate learning objectives for your own course. The knowledge and comprehension domains, in particular, can help you identify the skills students need before advancing to more complex topics in your course.
|Cognitive Domain||Skills||Examples of Verbs|
|Knowledge||Remember previously learned information.||List, name, identify, show, define, recognize, recall, state, visualize, label, match, arrange|
|Comprehension||Demonstrate an understanding of facts.||Explain, summarize, describe, interpret, compare, paraphrase, differentiate, demonstrate, classify|
|Application||Apply knowledge to real situations.||Solve, calculate, apply, illustrate, compute, use, demonstrate, predict, employ, manipulate|
|Analysis||Break down objects or ideas into simpler parts and find evidence to support generalizations.||Compare, contrast, distinguish, deduce, organize, plan, devise, analyze, infer, differentiate, distinguish|
|Synthesis||Compile component ideas into a new whole or propose alternative solutions.||Design, create, compose, write, report, present, synthesize, integrate, generate, formulate, prepare|
|Evaluation||Make and defend judgments based on internal evidence or external criteria.||Judge, assess, appraise, argue, defend, support, evaluate, justify, predict, discriminate, select|
Macro and Micro Learning Objectives
When approaching your course design, it’s useful to think in terms of what we call “macro objectives” and “micro objectives.” “Macro objectives” refer to learning objectives concerned with the big picture. They answer the question: “What will students be able to do at the end of the course?” “Micro objectives,” on the other hand, are learning objectives that students must achieve in order to accomplish a macro objective. They answer the question, “What will students need to be able to know or do to accomplish the macro objectives?”
As such, micro objectives act as “building blocks” for the majority of your course’s structure. While some macro objectives may span more than one module, multiple micro objectives can map to a single module. To avoid endlessly nesting objectives in a hierarchical relationship, try to write your micro objectives as “atomic elements” such that they can’t be broken down any more (unless you like nuclear explosions).
Beginning with identifying macro objectives and then breaking them down into their component micro objectives is a useful exercise that serves a number of purposes. It can help you:
- identify appropriate summative assessments, which often map to macro objectives.
- identify appropriate formative assessments, which often map to micro objectives.
- confirm what you consider to be prerequisite knowledge for your course.
- select your instructional materials.
- scaffold skills and knowledge in a logical order.
- determine whether the scope of your course is too broad.
- ensure your course’s alignment with higher-level curricular goals.
Consider, for example, this learning objective for a political science course:
Students will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of democratic government.
Although it’s a well-articulated learning objective that uses an action verb, many pieces of knowledge and skills are necessary to achieve it. Therefore, we can identify it as a macro objective and then attempt to break it down into micro objectives:
|Macro Objective||Micro Objectives|
|(By the end of this course, students will be able to…)||(In order to achieve this macro objectives, students need to be able to…)|
|Evaluate the effectiveness of democratic government.||→||
Each macro objective requires a variable number of micro objectives – sometimes few and sometimes many. Just make sure that all of your micro objectives are manageable enough that you don’t need to break them down any further. If a macro objective is what you spend a course trying to help students achieve, consider the micro-objectives to be those you spend a module helping students achieve.
Troubleshooting Your Learning Objectives
Articulating learning objectives gets easier with practice. Eventually, you’ll find you can’t do without them! Until that happens, here are a few tips if you get stuck writing objectives.
- If you find yourself describing what you will be doing as an instructor (e.g., “go over a range of qualitative research methods” or “cover differential equations”), you can turn that teaching objective into a learning objective by asking what you want students to be able to do (e.g., “apply a range of qualitative research methods”).
- If you find yourself using verbs such as “understand,” ask yourself: What must students do to demonstrate that they understand the material?
- If you find that your objectives could describe your department’s entire curriculum, they’re too broad. If so, ask yourself: What can students learn in my course that will contribute to this broader goal?
- If your objectives sound like the task specifications for a single assignment, they’re too narrow. If so, try to identify the larger skill you want students to master.
- If your objectives sound like they could appear on a syllabus in almost any course, make them specific to your discipline.
It can be challenging to ensure that your learning objectives are action-oriented and student-centered, but if you set aside time to reflect on your course goals, leverage instructional design frameworks like Bloom’s Taxonomy, and identify your macro objectives and their components micro-objectives, you’ll be more likely to ensure that your course is structured with a maximum focus on deep student learning. In addition, a course map can serve to house your objectives (as well as the assessments and instructional materials that align with them) in a format that allows you to see everything at a glance.
Articulating learning objectives is arguably the most important step to take in designing any course, whether face-to-face or online. They act as guideposts for both you and your students, directing your instructional choices both as you design the course and as you teach it, and showing students the tangible knowledge and skills they will gain from your course. Learning to write objectives that are student centered, active, observable, and specific will help you lay a strong foundation for a successful online course.