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
Although you can write objectives in different ways, the following sentence provides a basic framework:
By the end of this course (or any instructional unit), students will be able to _________.
This sentence structure alone doesn’t make an objective effective, however. For instance, you could fill in that statement with something like “understand cheeseburgers” or “comprehend the English language,” neither of which would represent a strong objective. With that in mind, in addition to stating what students should be able to do, a learning objective should be:
- Student centered: It should describe what students will know or be able to do, not what you will teach or cover.
- Active: It should describe what students will be able to do as a result of what they’re learning.
- Observable: It should describe visible behavior, not inward states such as “understanding” or “appreciation.”
- Specific: It 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.
When articulating objectives, think about the following: What are the key points of the course? What are essential skills or pieces of knowledge for 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 students to gain? The answers to these questions will help ensure that your objectives are student centered, active, observable, and specific.
The following chart gives 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
As an expert in your field, you can sometimes be so close to your subject matter that it becomes difficult for you to pinpoint the discrete skills and knowledge you want your students to gain. This phenomenon is referred to as expert blind spot, and it suggests that an expert in any given field can forget how difficult it is for a novice to initially learn the content. Given that we should ideally write learning objectives with novices in mind, identifying objectives can sometimes be challenging.
To help with this, consider employing Bloom’s Taxonomy, a framework for distinguishing different types of intellectual skills. Bloom’s Taxonomy identifies six cognitive domains, each of which maps to different action verbs that can help you identify the appropriate learning objectives for your 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. In this respect, developing your learning objectives based on Bloom’s Taxonomy can help you combat expert blind spot, as it will ensure that students progress sequentially from the novice domains to the expert ones.
Troubleshooting Your Learning Objectives
As with many things, articulating learning objectives gets easier with practice. Eventually, you’ll find you can’t do without them! Until that happens, though, here are a few tips if you get stuck writing objectives.
- If you find yourself describing what you as an instructor will be doing (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? For instance, a broad objective such as “Students will be able to think like an economist” can be narrowed to “Students will be able to apply key concepts in microeconomics” or “Students will be able to plot supply-and-demand curves.”
- 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. For instance, “Students will be able to write a four- to five-page paper that explains the relationship between McGregor’s theory X and theory Y” could be broadened to “Students will be able to articulate the relationships among theories of child development.”
- If your objectives sound like they could appear on a syllabus in almost any course, make them specific to your discipline. For instance, the objective “Students will be able to apply the principles of this course to solve problems” could be made more specific like so: “Students will be able to apply the principles of optimization and elasticity to solve basic economic problems.”
Learning objectives act as guideposts for both you and your students. They can help direct your instructional choices both as you design the course and as you teach it, and they show students the tangible knowledge and skill sets 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.