Definitions, Underpinnings, Benefits, and Cautions
The focus of this guide is to provide actionable, evidence-based advice for instructors to use when creating, revising, and using instructional learning objectives in their courses. Although we recognize that learning progressions, threshold concepts, pre-post testing, and other approaches can also identify and provide guideposts to student learning, we urge instructors to use them in conjunction with learning objectives. Stated another way, we view learning objectives as fundamental. They provide a standard structure for courses, establishing a solid framework for assessing student learning and driving teaching and learning activities.
Note: The terms “course objectives,” “course goals,” “learning objectives,” “learning outcomes,” and “learning goals” are used interchangeably in the literature. To avoid confusion, here we use the following definitions:
Learning objectives (LOs) are simple, specific statements that communicate the purpose of instruction and the learning expectations and claims about teaching and learning. They are often declared in a nested hierarchy (i.e., institution, program, course, and instructional).
Institutional learning objectives are broad statements typically called student learning outcomes and are designed to communicate major educational claims about what students can expect from attending an institution.
Programmatic learning objectives are broad statements designed to communicate nationally recognized standards of knowledge and skills that students are expected to acquire by completing a degree or certification program.
Course-level learning objectives—also often called learning goals—are broad statements that are course-specific and student-centered. They are aligned with institutional LOs, communicate the educational claims made about what students can expect from a course, and guide the development and coordination of major sections or units within that course.
Instructional learning objectives are descriptive, student-focused, and specific statements that align with course-level LOs. They communicate what students need to know and be able to do and are designed to be linked to assessment items used in the course. They are also granular enough to be introduced at individual class sessions and reflect the content and skills taught that day. Instructional LOs include (a) an action verb that states the performance expected of students, (b) the conditions under which the student is expected to demonstrate the knowledge or skill in question, and (c) the criteria by which student mastery will be measured. Hereafter, we use “learning objectives” to represent instructional LOs.
- Learning objectives are established as the initial step in backward design. They provide the framework for (a) designing assessments that furnish evidence on how well students have mastered expected knowledge and skills and (b) selecting materials and strategies that improve instruction. They provide a clear structure while giving instructors the freedom to be creative and flexible in planning instruction and assessment.
- The goal of LOs is to support teaching and learning by transparently and clearly communicating what instructors assert their students will know and be able to do upon successful completion of a class session. Learning objectives are most effective when instructors and students share a common understanding of their purpose and use, and when they are consistent with both the assessment and instructional plans for the course and with program-wide goals and professional practice standards.
- Bloom’s taxonomy of learning provides a useful framework for extending LOs across a range of cognitive complexity.
- Learning objectives serve as clear “goalposts” for students. As a result, they should help students organize their time and effort toward achieving success and give underprepared students a better idea of where they should seek help. Students should no longer have to ask, “Do we have to know …?” or “Will this be on the test?”
- Learning objectives support content consistency when courses are taught by multiple instructors and furnish valuable information about course alignment among institutions.
- Although LOs are sometimes mandated at the administrative level, they are best developed by subject-matter experts who will implement them with a strong focus on student benefits.
Rodriguez, M. C., & Albano, A. D. (2017). The college instructor’s guide to writing test items: Measuring student learning. Routledge. This resource discusses the foundational role of LOs for planning assessment and introduces a framework for creating a test blueprint. Rodriguez and Albano give practical guidelines, with evidence-based references, to support the use of LOs in improving instructors’ assessment practice. Instructors will find this resource helpful in clarifying the foundational nature of instructional LOs and the role of LOs in planning assessment and classroom instruction.
Mager, R. F. (1962). Preparing instructional objectives: a critical tool in the development of effective instruction (1st ed.). Fearon Publishers. Mager discusses the importance of establishing LOs for communicating the intent of instruction, providing a measure for evaluating a course or program, and serving as the foundation for effective course design. Guidelines are provided to help instructors write effective LOs, and the importance of aligning assessment and classroom instruction with LOs is emphasized. The three components of LOs are defined as performance, conditions, and criteria. Performance should be stated using an action verb and describe what students are expected to do. Conditions should communicate which tools they will/will not use and the real-world situations in which their performance must occur. Criteria provide a standard for assessment that refers to the performance and describes a limit to the performance. The author stresses that LOs should not include the instructional methods planned for achieving the LOs. Instructors can use this comprehensive resource to practice identifying well-written LOs versus poorly written LOs and will be able to describe the benefits of using LOs to measure student learning.
Crowe, A., Dirks, C., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2008). Biology in Bloom: Implementing Bloom’s taxonomy to enhance student learning in biology. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 7(4), 368–381. The authors present the Blooming Biology Tool (BBT), an assessment tool intended to benefit both instructors and students. The BBT can be used to assess the cognitive level of sample biology exam questions by identifying what students must know or be able to do to successfully answer each question and aligning these skills with each level of Bloom’s taxonomy. The BBT can benefit students by helping them to identify Bloom’s level of biology-related questions that they find most challenging, and Bloom’s-based Learning Activities for Students (BLASt) is provided as guidance for student engagement in individual and group activities to prepare for these questions. Instructors will find helpful tools to guide their design of higher-order and lower-order LOs, develop a variety of assessment questions that measure student progress toward demonstrating Bloom’s cognitive skills required by the LOs, and plan learning strategies/activities that support success on assessments.
Bumpus, E. C., Vinco, M. H., Lee, K. B., Accurso, J. F., & Graves, S. L. (2020). The consistency of expectations: An analysis of learning objectives within cognitive assessment course syllabi. Teaching of Psychology, 49(1), 30–36. The authors analyzed the LOs declared in 90 cognitive assessment course syllabi from programs accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). They found that 88% of the LOs measured lower level (Levels 1, 2, or 3) Bloom’s thinking and that all six APA standards were represented in only 6.67% of the syllabi, even though the field of practice for this course requires students to have thinking skills that span all six Bloom’s taxonomy levels. The authors recommend that instructors align their LOs with the cognitive skills required to meet program-wide goals and professional standards. Based on these outcomes, instructors should align their LOs with requisite programmatic and professional standards and intentionally develop LOs that require higher-level Bloom’s thinking.
Mitchell, K. M., & Manzo, W. R. (2018). The purpose and perception of learning objectives. Journal of Political Science Education, 14, 456–472. The authors used formal and informal surveys of students, instructors, and assessment professionals to study the purpose and use of instructional LOs in political science courses at an R1 and a small liberal arts institution. They concluded that the phrasing of LOs had no significant impact on student perceptions or performance. Evidence indicates that neither instructors nor students accurately classify action verbs using Bloom’s taxonomy, with accuracy dropping higher in the hierarchical order. Further, the authors found that neither the presence of LOs in the syllabus nor their presentation on the first day of the class impacted student perceptions of learning. The authors conclude that LOs can improve teaching only if instructors are given ownership of the LOs. These data support two conclusions for instructors to keep in mind: Focusing on the thinking skill required to demonstrate an LO is more important than the specific verb choice, and LOs are best developed by faculty rather than administrators.