How do I write learning objectives?


 

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Learning is a cognitive process that leads to change in learner’s capability after the instruction (Smith & Ragan, 1996). However, since we cannot directly observe this cognitive change, we need to determine measurable evidences for learners to demonstrate what they have learned. Smith and Regan defined learning objectives as “statements that tells what learner should be able to do when they have completed a segment of instruction” (p.96). In this sense, measurable learning objectives are important for two reasons: (1) they provide learners explicit statements to let them know what they have learned, and (2) they let designers and teachers know what learning is aiming to. In fact, there are two levels of learning objectives to consider within a course. They are (1) course level objectives and (2) module level objectives.
 

Write Course Level Objectives

Course objectives are broad level statements describing overall course outcomes. Unlike course goals or course descriptions, course level objectives are measurable statements including skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that are targeted. In this sense, the course level objectives should be explicitly stated because course level objectives describe what students will be able to do once they have successfully completed the course.

Example:

By the end of the course, the learner will able to define and describe the five primary qualitative research approaches applied in educational research.

The verbs describing what students will do should be measurable. 

Examples:

identify, explain, modify, analyze, combine, critique, ...

Non-examples:

understand, learn, know,…

Although our goal is for our students to increase their understanding or knowledge of concepts we cannot directly measure what someone knows or understands.  Thus we look at their performance on a task to indirectly assess student understanding.  This means we think about what the student would be able to do that would indicate to the instructor the student has acquired the desired level of knowledge or understanding regarding a particular topic.

Bloom’s Taxonomy, which was developed by Benjamin Bloom, is a classification of the learning objectives based on cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. Cognitive domain represents the knowledge, comprehension, and critical thinking. Affective domain refers to one’s emotional reaction to a particular topic. Psychomotor domain refers to one’s ability to physically manipulate things. Typically, cognitive changes are measured by using the six subcategories of cognitive domain (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) that offers measurable verbs that can be used in learning objectives.

Verb Wheel Based on Bloom's Taxonomy offers more examples of measurable verbs of Bloom's Taxonomy (Original and Revised Taxonomy)

 

      Source: Petram, K. (2010, June 15) Bloom’s taxonomy: Levels of understanding.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Write Module/Unit Objectives

Having measurable module/unit level objectives in your online course is also important. Module/unit level objectives are brief, clear, statements intending to inform learners about what is expected from them as they proceed through the module/unit. Moreover, module/unit level objectives guide instructors as they design their course and make decisions about the instructional materials and strategies used. Most importantly, the module/unit level objectives inform students about the expectations and learning outcomes for a shorter time frame.

Examples:

After the completion of this module, the learner will be able to:

  • describe the main characteristics of case study research
  • compare and contrast how the design of a case study is different from other qualitative approaches

By comparison, module level objectives are statements about expected student performance at the unit level in connection with comprise a course objective. Therefore, module level objectives should support the broader course level objectives.

Example:

Sample Course Objective

The learner will be able to define and describe the three primary learning theories applied in educational research over the past 25 years.

Sample of Module Objectives that Support the Given Course Objective

Module 1 Behaviorism

After completion of this module the learner will be able to:

  • Define and describe the attributes of behaviorism
  • Identify whether a classroom management scenario represents a behaviorist perspective to discipline by analyzing a case study.
  • Discuss different perspectives of educators regarding supporting behaviorist approaches to learning.

 Alignment

Alignment is a concept which refers to the idea that course components work together to make sure that students achieve expected learning outcomes. In other words, alignment represents the harmony among course components, such as objectives, instructional material, and assessment.  The main role of a well written and measurable objective is to direct alignment among the components of your course. In practice, defining your learning objectives and then aligning your instruction and assessments with them will make your course preparation easier and avoid including materials that do not reach your course objectives.

Write Objectives Clearly & From the Student's Perspective

Writing objectives clearly and from the student perspective is important in terms of transmitting your message to the targeted audience, in this case to your learners. Learning objectives should be written in a way that students can easily understand the meaning and outcome. To achieve this, avoid using complex and unnecessary language in the objective.  In addition, it can help to target the learner by using words, such as students and learners in your statement.  Using this terminology can clearly convey the message that what you are describing is not what you the instructor will do during the course, but what the student will be able to do once they have successfully completed the module.

Non-example:

The objective of the module is to identify the distinguishing characteristics and features of the discovery learning teaching approach used in today’s contemporary science education.

When we look at the non-example objective above, first, we see that it was not written from the student perspective and does not include the targeted audience. Also, wording is problematic because there are a lot of unnecessary terminology that could be simplified for students to understand it clearly. Thus, objectives should explicitly target students and clearly transmit the message intended.

Example:

At the end of the unit, students will be able to identify main characteristics of discovery learning used in science education today.

Clearly State the Relationship between Activities and Course Objectives

In an online course, your instructions play an important role to direct learners to the targeted learning objectives. For this reason, instructions in any form (e.g., narratives, charts, bulleted lists) should be clearly stated and adequate for the student to complete the assignment successfully. Instructors should indicate which learning activity supports specific course or module level objectives.

Examples:

Course map or charts

Provide a list of steps guiding students in meeting the learning objectives for each week in the syllabus

Weekly Readings: Each week you will have readings in digital formats such as online lesson, PDF file or PowerPoint presentation that will give you the theoretical foundations of qualitative research approaches. The information provided will help you complete your assignments throughout the semester.

Module Quizzes: In each module you are expected to complete one online quiz. The purpose of the quizzes is assessing if you can identify the research questions and explain the main characteristics of qualitative approaches.

Research Proposal: At the end of the each module you are expected to prepare a research proposal that reflects your ability to design a research based on the approach studied that week. Each proposal assignment meets the requirements is worth 30 points. The proposals will be evaluated by using the rubric given in each module.

Verify Learning Objectives are Appropriate

Instructors should determine whether learning objectives are appropriately designed for the level of the course. The course and module/unit objectives should support appropriate knowledge and skills to the course level. For instance, freshman courses focus on establishing foundational knowledge and applying that foundational knowledge. On the other hand, graduate courses emphasize synthesizing information and create new knowledge. For example, in a freshman level behavioral statistics course, students should not be expected to conduct a confirmatory factor analysis.

Freshman student learning objective example:

At the end of the course, students will be able to perform mathematical operations.

At the end of the course, the learner will be able to distinguish between fact and opinion.

At the end of the module, students will be able to evaluate information sources for accuracy.

Graduate student learning objective examples:

At the end of the course, students will be able to apply performance standards of science education.

At the end of the course, students will be able to design a phenomenological study.


Tools and Resources

  • Learning Outcomes from Texas A&M University Writing Center gives a brief overview of how to determine learning outcomes for a course and/or for assignments.
  • Writing Student Learning Outcomes from Texas A&M University provides examples and key points about how to write student learning outcomes.
  • Articulate Your Learning Objectives  from Carnegie Mellon University offers guidelines that can help you design your course.
  • Writing SMART Learning Objectives from University of Central Florida provides a framework about how to design Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Result-focused, and Time-focused (SMART) learning objectives
  • Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional design. New York, NY: Wiley.