Laying the Foundation: How to Write Strong Objectives to Drive Your Learning Experience

Strong learning objectives are the foundation of any effective learning experience. In this course, you will learn how to write objectives that provide students a clear road map through the knowledge and skills they will gain in a course, and guide instructors toward creating a cohesive course where learning content and assessments are appropriately aligned.

Introduction

What is a Learning Objective?

An objective is a statement that expresses what a person can do. Educational objectives express what a student should be able to do after completing an educational experience. Objectives are not lists of topics that students will learn about. 

These are objectives:

  • Explain three causes of the Great Depression.
  • Solve polynomial equations using the Remainder Theorem.
  • Analyze the effect of climate change on ocean currents.

These are not objectives:

  • Causes of the Great Depression
  • The Remainder Theorem
  • Climate change

Objectives may also be called outcomes, goals, skills, competencies, or capabilities.

Course Objectives

Course Objectives

Now that we've defined what a learning objective is, let's take a look at the learning objectives for this course.

After completing this course, you should be able to:

  1. Explain the importance of strong learning objectives.
  2. Identify the three components of a strong learning objective.
  3. Discuss best practices for writing strong learning objectives.

Why are Strong Learning Objectives So Important?

Defining the Goals of the Course

Imagine you are working with a subject matter expert to design an online course called Introduction to Graphic Design. You're excited to get started, but you realize after a couple of weeks that you're not sure what the goals of the class are. The textbook seems to focus on the history of graphic design, but your subject matter expert is suggesting activities that are very hands-on. Now you need to create an assessment, and you aren't sure what the focus should be. 

This is just one example of why strong learning objectives are so important. Good learning objectives help students (and instructional designers!) understand whether their goal is declarative or procedural knowledge, make sure they’re practicing the right skills, and help them learn the new material in a way that promotes successful transfer outside the classroom (Eberly Center for Teaching and Learning, Carnegie Mellon University).

Giving Students a Road Map

Ideally, a course will have at least two interrelated levels of learning objectives: Course objectives and unit objectives. 

  • Course objectives are typically broader in scope, and describe what the student will be able to do at the end of the course.
  • Unit objectives describe what a student will be able to do at the end of a particular lesson or module. Unit objectives should support course objectives.

This hierarchical arrangement helps guide students through the progression of the course by relating the content and activities of one lesson to the goals of the entire course. 

Aligning Content, Activities, and Assessments

Let's return to the scenario of the introductory web design course, where the learning content -- the textbook -- doesn't line up with the learning activities suggested by the SME, and you were left struggling to create an appropriate assessment.

Starting with a foundation of strong learning objectives makes it easier to choose relevant learning content and activities, because everything in the course should support the objectives. It's also easier to design assessments, because the objectives tell you the exact action that students should be able to do. 

For example, if your web design course had objectives that focused on the nuts and bolts of creating web sites, you would know that learning content on the history of web design is most likely irrelevant -- and that the learning content, activities, and assessments should all be geared toward building basic hands-on skills.


The Components of a Strong Learning Objective

Introduction

Characteristics of a Strong Objective

We've discussed that a learning objective describes exactly what a student should be able to do after completing an educational experience. A strong learning objective contains three elements:

  • Behavior: What the student is expected to do
  • Criterion: The scope or level of performance that is expected
  • Conditions: The context in which the performance must occur

Next, we'll take a closer look at each one of these elements.

Behavior

What Should Students Be Able to Do?

The behavior element of an objective describes the action that students should be able to perform: 

  • Describe causes of the Great Depression.
  • Solve polynomial equations.

As you can see in the examples above, the behavior element includes a verb and a noun phrase. The noun phrase describes the knowledge or skill, and the verb specifies both the cognitive level and the way students will show what they've learned. The behavior should always describe what the student will do, rather than what the instructor will teach.

Let's focus in on the verb portion. Choose your verb carefully, and remember these crucial points:

  • Each objective should have only one verb. If an objective has two verbs -- such as "List and explain the causes of the Great Depression" -- what happens if a student can perform one, but not the other? If an objective has two verbs that are at the same Bloom's level, they can be split into two separate objectives. If one verb is at a higher Bloom's level than the other, as in the example here, the lower-level verb is usually subsumed in the higher-level verb, so you can just use the higher-level verb.
  • The verb must be measurable. Otherwise, you can't assess whether a student has achieved the objective. Stick with active verbs like explain, analyze, discuss, list, identify, etc. Never use understand, appreciate, comprehend, demonstrate knowledge of, or other ambiguous verbs that don't state how students will show what they've learned. Keep the focus on student behavior rather than instructional content.
  • The verb should reflect the appropriate Bloom's level. Bloom's taxonomy provides a host of great verbs to use in your objectives, but make sure you don't over- or undershoot the level of achievement that's appropriate for the course. You might ask a student in an upper-level psychology class to analyze the primary psychological theories of the 20th century, but you'd probably only expect a student in an introductory course to be able to describe them. 

Bloom's Taxonomy Wheel

This graphic aligns the six levels of Bloom's taxonomy (purple) with appropriate verbs (orange) and student deliverables (green) (Belshaw, 2009).


Is the following a strong learning objective? "Understand the First Amendment and explain how it affects the newspaper industry."

  • Yes -- looks great to me!
  • No -- it could use some improvement.

Criterion

Criterion

The second element of a strong objective is the criterion. Not every objective needs a criterion, but adding one will make your objective more specific and clear. The criterion can delineate the scope of student performance, for example, or the degree of accuracy, or the quantity that a student must achieve. 

Let's look at some examples. The objectives below each have one measurable verb, so they pass the first major hurdle of effectiveness:

  • List types of financial records.
  • Identify landmark First Amendment court cases.

Adding a criterion, however, improves them by giving them a more narrow focus:

  • List types of financial records required to complete an itemized tax return.
  • Identify three landmark First Amendment court cases from the 20th century.

As you write objectives, consider whether adding a criterion will help focus or clarify the expected behavior.

Conditions

Providing context

The final element of a strong learning objective is the conditions. The conditions identify the context in which the student will perform the behavior. Let's look at a couple of examples:

  • Correct grammatical mistakes in a written document.
  •  Identify five basic elements of corporate accounting on financial statements.

By adding conditions -- "in a written document" and "on financial statements" -- we give learners even more information about how they will be assessed.

Bringing it All Together

Now that we've looked at each element separately, let's see how they fit together in a single objective.

Behavior

Criterion

Conditions

Correct grammatical mistakes

[all of them] in a written document
Identify basic corporate accounting elements five [of them] on financial statements
     

Note how each of these objectives would be passable if they only included the behavior element, but adding criteria and conditions tailors them to a specific level and context of performance.  

Identify the criterion/criteria in the following objective: "Plan a healthy, seven-day diet for an individual with heart disease."

  • plan a diet
  • healthy, seven-day
  • for an individual
  • with heart disease

Review of Best Practices

Focus on Student Behavior

As instructors and instructional designers, it can be easy to focus only on the content we want students to learn. That's where objectives like "Understand the causes of the Great Depression" and "Develop an appreciation of the importance of the First Amendment" come from. 

To write strong objectives, keep the focus on student behavior. 

Use One Active, Measurable Verb

The verb is the core of your objective, so choose it wisely. Determine the appropriate Bloom's level, and pick a verb that is active and measurable.

Say No To...

Say Yes To...

  • Understand
  • Appreciate
  • Demonstrate knowledge of 
  • Learn
  • Know
  • Explain
  • Discuss
  • Evaluate
  • Compare
  • Design
  • Write
  • Solve

Be SMART

One popular mnenomic device for writing strong learning objectives is to make them SMART: 

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-oriented

Conclusion

Conclusion

Let's review what you've learned by taking another look at the course objectives.

  1. Explain the importance of strong learning objectives.
    • Strong learning objectives help students understand whether their goal is declarative or procedural knowledge, make sure they’re practicing the right skills, and help students learn the new material in a way that promotes successful transfer outside the classroom ( (Eberly Center for Teaching and Learning, Carnegie Mellon University). 
    • Strong learning objectives help instructors and instructional designers choose and align appropriate learning content, activities, and assessments. .
  2. Identify the three components of a strong learning objective.
    • Strong learning objectives include a behavior, a criterion, and conditions.
  3. Discuss best practices for writing strong learning objectives.
    • Focus on the behavior you want to see from the student, not on what the instructor will be teaching.
    • Choose a single, measurable verb at the appropriate Bloom's level for each objective.
    • Objectives should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Oriented.

References

Eberly Center for Teaching and Learning, Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). The Educational Value of Course-level Learning Objectives/Outcomes. Retrieved from Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/resources/Teaching/CourseDesign/Objectives/CourseLearningObjectivesValue.pdf


Belshaw, Doug (2009). Bloom's Taxonomy as a Wheel. Retrieved from: https://www.wylio.com/credits/flickr/4100721032