Student Use

Student Use

  • Students view learning objectives (LOs) positively because they act as a guide to focus their study time. Learning objectives that contain an action verb and provide a specific context clearly define performance expectations on assessments, make course content more explicit, and help students self-direct their learning.
  • To maximize the perceived value of LOs to students, instructors should ensure that instructional LOs align with assessment and course instruction. When instructors do not reinforce LOs in the context of instruction, students may conclude that the stated LOs are for administrative requirements only rather than for their benefit.
  • Many students have never received instruction on how to use LOs. Students benefit from specific directions on how they should use LOs to succeed.
Guiding Learning
  • Students use LOs in response to instructor recommendations and are open to further instruction on working with them. Instructors may wish to consider teaching students to turn LOs into questions and then trained on how to answer those questions—an exercise that provides practice opportunities and supports self-assessment.
  • Using LOs can improve students’ ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation, in turn, may be particularly helpful in supporting the success of underprepared students.
  • Students adjust their learning approach based on course design and have been shown to employ a deeper approach to learning in courses where assessment and class instruction are aligned with LOs.
  • It may be difficult for students to understand specific LOs until after learning the content. One study reports that about one-third of students surveyed indicated that they underestimated the depth of learning required to pass an assessment on the stated LOs.
  • Student feedback to survey questions supports the hypothesis that LOs should be published to guide rather than “restrict” or circumscribe learning.

Osueke, B., Mekonnen, B., & Stanton, J. D. (2018). How undergraduate science students use learning objectives to study. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, (19)2, 1–8. This exploratory study was done in a 300-level science course, where authors analyzed 185 coded responses to questions about how students use and perceive LOs. Students reported using LOs based on instructor recommendations and indicated that they were open to guidance on using them. Students found LOs helpful in organizing and focusing study efforts and reported that assessment items were well-aligned with the LOs. They found that students use LOs as questions to answer (47.4%), as a resource for studying (24.1%), as a self-assessment tool (14.3%), or for passive use (“going over”; 13.5%). They recommend that instructors state LOs for each day in class and model how students use them. The authors emphasize the importance of aligning instruction and assessment with LOs, and instructors are urged to share their LOs with their students to provide goals for what students should know and be able to do. Instructors are encouraged to provide instruction on using LOs, such as turning LOs into questions and using LOs for self-assessment.

Simon, B., & Taylor, J. (2009). What is the value of course-specific learning goals? The Journal of College Science Teaching, 39, 52–57. The authors discuss the value of using specific instructional LOs in two upper-level computing literacy courses and one upper-level microbiology course from the student and instructor viewpoint. Survey results supported the authors’ hypothesis that students have difficulty identifying what is essential in their courses and that LOs help them organize their efforts more effectively. Student feedback (n = 553 student comments) on the use of LOs was 85% positive. No effect was observed between instructors that presented LOs at the beginning of every lecture period versus at the beginning of each unit/topic area. Instructor feedback indicated that LOs enhanced communication with both students and other instructors. Instructors should note that students find value in LOs that are detailed and student-focused and identify specific goals for students to use in directing their learning efforts.

Brooks, S., Dobbins, K., Scott, J. J. A., Rawlinson, M., & Norman, R. I. (2014). Learning about learning outcomes: the student perspective. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(6), 721–733. The authors of this survey study found that 81% of the undergraduate students surveyed in Biological Sciences, English, and Medicine (n = 918 responses) agreed that LOs are effective aids in structuring their studying and note-taking. Almost half (49%) reported that exposure to course content was required before LOs could be fully understood. Although most students felt that LOs clarify the depth of learning required to pass a topic, 60% also reported that it was possible to underestimate the level of learning needed. Student feedback indicates that having well-written LOs is essential and cautioned that LOs should guide, but not restrict, student learning. Most students agreed that student training on using LOs would be helpful but should not be required. The authors provide instructors with insight on the variety of ways that students use LOs, reinforcing students’ positive view of LOs and emphasizing that students often have difficulty identifying the depth of learning expected to meet the LOs. Instructors are encouraged to instruct students on using LOs to direct their studies effectively.

Wang, X., Su, Y., Cheung, S., Wong, E., & Kwong, T. (2013). An exploration of Biggs’ constructive alignment in course design and its impact on students’ learning approaches. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38, 477–491. The researchers examined how “constructively aligned” courses, which associate clearly defined, higher-order LOs with constructivist teaching practices and assessments, affect students’ approach to learning. The researchers employed a survey instrument with supporting validity evidence with 692 undergraduate students and interviews with nine instructors to gather information about course alignment and students’ approaches to learning. They found that students in constructively aligned courses changed their learning approach from a surface (reproduction-based) to a more profound (understanding-based) learning approach. These data support the hypothesis that course designs founded on written, higher-order LOs can influence students’ learning approaches. They conclude that constructive alignment of instructional objectives to assessment and classroom learning activities positively impacts students’ perceptions of the learning environment and is a best practice for promoting student learning. Instructors are provided evidence that students adjust their approach to learning based on course construction and encourage instructors to promote a profound learning approach by using LOs to make their expectations and learning priorities clear to the student.

Leone, E. A., Salisbury, S. L., Nolen, Z. L., Idema, J. L., Parsley, K. M., Stefanik, K. L., & Daniel, K. L. (2019). Identifying the breakdowns in how students and faculty interpret course objectives. Bioscene: The Journal of College Biology Teaching, 45(1), 16–23. The authors present a survey-based study of 424 students and two participating instructors from an introductory biology course designed for nonscience majors. Students more accurately recognized intended objectives based on classroom activity versus the explicit course objectives listed in the syllabus. The authors conclude that classroom activities communicate LOs more effectively than the syllabi. Instructors should understand that listing LOs in the syllabus does not communicate their learning expectations to students as effectively as reinforcing LOs in classroom activities and assignments.

  • Using LOs to create pretests better communicates course expectations to students, increases student motivation and morale by making learning progress more visible, and increases retention of information as measured by final test scores. Operationalizing LOs as pretests is an effective, evidence-based model for students to self-assess and prepare for assessment.

Beckman, W. S. (2008). Pretesting as a method of conveying learning objectives. Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education & Research, 17(2), 61–70. The author compared the effectiveness of pretesting 57 students in an introductory aerospace course before each unit, using questions based on the stated unit LOs, versus distributing the LOs in list form. Although sample sizes were small, the overall exam scores in a section where pretests were employed were significantly higher compared to a section where LOs were provided in list form. Exam scores increased significantly for all three exams and the final exam. The end-of-semester student comments about being given LOs as pretests were positive. Instructors should note that this preliminary data suggests that active engagement with LOs in the form of pretests is more effective in communicating course expectations to students than simply providing a list of LOs.

Sana, F., Forrin, N. D., Sharma, M., Dubljevic, T., Ho, P., Jalil, E., & Kim, J. A. (2020). Optimizing the efficacy of learning objectives through pretests. CBE Life Sciences Education, 19(3), 1–10. The authors used hour-long laboratory experiments with 164 introductory psychology students conducted outside of normal class activities to investigate the effect of LOs on test performance. Presenting LOs to students before they read a passage resulted in significantly higher final test scores than those of students not presented with the LOs. In a follow-on experiment, student performance on the test was significantly higher when LOs were presented in pretest versus written form. This result indicates that LOs do not just direct student effort/attention but also trigger enhanced encoding/learning of subsequent new information. The effect was similar for multiple-choice versus short-answer pretest formats. The effect was reduced when instructors provided corrective feedback versus when the instructor provided no corrective feedback. Providing the correct answers may promote a passive approach to learning rather than prompting students to actively identify correct answers on their own. The data suggest that instructors provide students with active opportunities to engage with LOs through pretests and other assignments.

  • Alignment between LOs and assessment items is associated with increased student success on exams, as evidenced by higher exam scores.
  • Exam items that are aligned with LOs can support higher-level thinking skills.
  • Student perceptions of the use of LOs for assessment and design of class activities are very positive, especially when LOs are made transparent.

Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., & Weiss, M. (2009). Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in introductory biology. CBELife Sciences Education, 8(3), 203–213.The authors report the results of an introductory biology course redesign over three years to improve student satisfaction and performance. Student enrollment each year ranged from 165–179 students. LOs were used as a “road map” to shape assessment and classroom activities. Exam and quiz questions were labeled with the LOs to ensure alignment of assessment questions with the course. Active and problem-based learning activities and clicker questions were explicitly aligned with the LOs and incorporated into every lecture. Student satisfaction with the course and exam scores were significantly higher post-redesign, even though the proportion of points on the final exam for higher Bloom’s-level exam questions increased from 15% to 25%. Students reported the presentation of LOs as the most helpful element of the course redesign. Students also identified clicker questions and quizzes as helpful elements of the course. Clickers provided valuable formative assessment opportunities for students to evaluate their understanding relative to expectations. Interestingly, students also expressed dislike of quizzes despite identifying them as helpful, which may indicate metacognitive awareness of quizzes as a strategy that enhances their learning. Attendance at the optional recitation sessions also increased when quizzes were moved to the day following recitation. Instructors should consider these positive student outcomes for LO-focused course redesign, including higher student satisfaction and increased exam scores.

Chasteen, S. V., Perkins, K. K., Beale, P. D., Pollock, S. J., & Wieman, C. E. (2011). A thoughtful approach to instruction: Course transformation for the rest of us. The Journal of College Science Teaching, 40, 24–30. The authors report the results of an upper-division physics course transformation using LOs to design instruction. The authors analyzed conceptional learning, traditional exam results, and attitudes of 488 students at four institutions. A group of 10 instructors reached a consensus to share 75% of the LOs, leaving the remaining 25% up to the individual instructor. Assessments were aligned with LOs and were used to inform future instruction. Course activities were aligned with LOs through increased active engagement, making course content explicit, and requiring students to demonstrate their understanding. Students in redesigned sections (a) reported more positive attitudes in end-of-semester surveys, (b) were more likely to come for tutoring (~50% of the class), (c) were more likely to come to homework help sessions, and (d) reported more time spent on homework. The redesign resulted in significantly higher student performance on a concept diagnostic tool with supporting validity evidence than courses taught exclusively by traditional lecture techniques. The learning gain demonstrated by students in the redesigned courses was the equivalent of two letter grades higher than that of students in the standard lecture courses. These results were in place for students at all performance levels and were observed at all institutions participating in this study (Chasteen et al., 2012b). Instructors are provided with evidence from a course transformation based on LOs that benefitted students in terms of attitudes, time engaged with content, and conceptional understanding.

Minbiole, J. (2016). Improving course coherence & assessment rigor: “Understanding by Design” in a nonmajors biology course. The American Biology Teacher, 78(6), 463–470. The author used the Understanding by Design framework to create explicit LOs that articulate the goals of a biology course for nonmajors and form the basis for all assessment and instruction. Assessment shifted from a topic-based approach to assessing deeper understanding via more short-answer questions requiring justification. Core ideas were identified and prioritized for instruction, and the amount of time spent lecturing was reduced by half. Classroom activities were designed to support student achievement of the LOs and included activities, video clips, and discussions. Student discussions yielded opportunities for formative assessment that informed future instruction. Final exam grades increased after LOs were articulated, with significantly more students earning A’s or B’s. Based on the outcomes reported, instructors should consider that course design using LOs to articulate instructor priorities can increase student exam scores.

Hebert, A. K., & O’Donnell, C. (2020). Tailoring case studies to course learning objectives helps improve student performance. HAPS Educator, 24(3), 34–41. The authors developed targeted case studies aligned with existing LOs and assessment questions on two challenging topics in first-semester anatomy and physiology course with historically low student success. Students worked through the case studies in groups during class, followed by an instructor-facilitated classroom discussion. Exam performance was significantly higher for case-based instruction than for traditional lectures, and fewer students demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of the selected topics. The authors underscore the importance of aligning classroom instruction and assessment with stated LOs. Instructors are provided evidence that when case-based instruction focuses on challenging LOs, student performance on LO-aligned items improves.

Jalloh, C., Collins, B., Lafleur, D., Reimer, J., & Morrow, A. (2019). Mapping session learning objectives to exam questions: How to do it and how to apply the results. Medical Teacher, 42(1), 66–72. The authors focused on mapping 536 multiple-choice questions in an exam bank to 358 instructional LOs in an undergraduate population health course. Learning objectives were revised to engage students in higher-level thinking, the number of exam items was increased, and exam composition was analyzed to ensure all LOs were assessed by the exam items selected. Exam interpretation validity was improved as a result of these efforts, and the reliability of all exam scores (as measured by KR-20, an estimate of internal consistency reliability equivalent to coefficient alpha) increased post-mapping. Student survey data indicated a 47% improvement in student perception of the clarity of the LOs. Student agreement that the midterm was appropriate for the material taught increased from 18% to 93%, and negative comments about exams decreased markedly. However, exam results did not change significantly. Based on these outcomes, instructors should note that there is evidence that mapping assessment items with LOs that reflect program goals and professional practice can have a significant, positive impact on student attitudes and can improve exam score reliability and the validity of exam interpretation and use.

Reynolds, H. L., & Kearns, K. D. (2017). A planning tool for incorporating backward design, active learning, and authentic assessment in the college classroom. College Teaching, 65(1), 17–27. The authors introduce a backward design–inspired lesson planner that facilitates LOs and aligns assessment and course activities. Using the planner in a biology course for nonmajors resulted in a shift from 90% lecture and 10% active learning to 45% lecture and 55% active learning. The instructor claimed increased planning efficiency, room for instructor creativity, and opportunities for formative assessment of student learning. Instructors will find positive feedback in this article indicating that students appreciate having time in class to actively engage in the content.

Return to Map

Cite this guide: Orr RB, Csikari MM, Freeman S, Rodriguez MC. (2022) Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Learning Objectives. CBE Life Science Education. Retrieved from

Return to Map

Cite this guide: Orr RB, Csikari MM, Freeman S, Rodriguez MC. (2022) Evidence Based Teaching Guide: Learning Objectives. CBE Life Science Education. Retrieved from
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