Writing Effective Learning Objectives

Illustration of a light bulb with the word goals forming the filament and being written by a hand holding a pencil.Effective teaching depends upon effective planning and design. The first step in preparing a high quality course is to clearly define your educational goals, which are the broad, overarching expectations for student learning and performance at the end of your course. (See The Innovative Instructor post: Writing Course Learning Goals) Next is to determine your learning objectives by writing explicit statements that describe what the student(s) will be able to do at the end of each class or course unit. This includes the concepts they need to learn, and the skills they need to acquire and be able to apply.

Developing learning objectives is part of the instructional design framework known as Backward Design, a student-centric approach that aligns learning objectives with assessment and instruction.

Clearly defined objectives form the foundation for selecting appropriate content, learning activities and assessment plans. Learning objectives help you to:

  • plan the sequence for instruction, allocate time to topics, assemble materials and plan class outlines.
  • develop a guide to teaching allowing you to plan different instructional methods for presenting different parts of the content. (e.g. small group discussions of a common misconception).
  • facilitate various assessment activities including assessing students, your instruction, and the curriculum.

Think about what a successful student in your course should be able to do on completion. Questions to ask are: What concepts should they be able to apply? What kinds of analysis should they be able to perform? What kind of writing should they be able to do? What types of problems should they be solving? Learning objectives provide a means for clearly describing these things to learners, thus creating an educational experience that will be meaningful.

Following are strategies for creating learning objectives.

I. Use S.M.A.R.T. Attributes

Learning objectives should have the following S.M.A.R.T. attributes.

Specific – Concise, well-defined statements of what students will be able to do.
Measurable – The goals suggest how students will be assessed. Start with action verbs that can be observed through a test, homework, or project (e.g., define, apply, propose).
Attainable – Students have the pre-requisite knowledge and skills and the course is long enough that students can achieve the objectives.
Relevant – The skills or knowledge described are appropriate for the course or the program in which the course is embedded.
Time-bound – State when students should be able to demonstrate the skill (end of the course, end of semester, etc.).

II. Use Behavioral Verbs

Another useful tip for learning objectives is to use behavioral verbs that are observable and measurable. Fortunately, Bloom’s taxonomy provides a list of such verbs and these are categorized according to the level of achievement at which students should be performing. (See The Innovative Instructor post: A Guide to Bloom’s Taxonomy) Using concrete verbs will help keep your objectives clear and concise.

Here is a selected, but not definitive, list of verbs to consider using when constructing learning objectives:

assemble, construct, create, develop, compare, contrast, appraise, defend, judge, support, distinguish, examine, demonstrate, illustrate, interpret, solve, describe, explain, identify, summarize, cite, define, list, name, recall, state, order, perform, measure, verify, relate

While the verbs above clearly distinguish the action that should be performed, there are verbs to avoid when writing a learning objective. The following verbs are too vague or difficult to measure:

appreciate, cover, realize, be aware of, familiarize, study, become acquainted with, gain knowledge of, comprehend, know, learn, understand, learn

III. Leverage Bloom’s Taxonomy

Since Blooms taxonomy establishes a framework for categorizing educational goals, having an understanding of these categories is useful for planning learning activities and writing learning objectives.

Examples of Learning Objectives

At end of the [module, unit, course] students will be able to…

… identify and explain major events from the Civil War. (American History)

… effectively communicate information, ideas and proposals in visual, written, and oral forms. (Marketing Communications)

… analyze kinetic data and obtain rate laws. (Chemical Engineering)

…interpret DNA sequencing data. (Biology)

…discuss and form persuasive arguments about a variety of literary texts produced by Roman authors of the Republican period. (Classics)

…evaluate the appropriateness of the conclusions reached in a research study based on the data presented. (Sociology)

…design their own fiscal and monetary policies. (Economics)

Additional Resources


Richard Shingles, Lecturer, Biology Department

Richard Shingles is a faculty member in the Biology department and also works with the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Director of the TA Training Institute and The Summer Teaching Institute on the Homewood campus of JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, post-docs and graduate students.

Images source: © Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources, 2016


Updating the BlogRoll

The Center for Educational Resources launched The Innovative Instructor blog four years ago in September 2012. Recently, in my role as editor, I was checking over the pages and links to be sure that everything still worked. I realized that several of the blogs featured on the BlogRoll had ceased to be or were no longer being updated. Three down.

Screenshot of WordPress administrative menu to add new content.What to add? There are many good education-related blogs out there so it was difficult to narrow the choice to three. And I wanted to find candidates that didn’t overlap in too much in focus and philosophy. Here are the winners, which you can find linked on the right sidebar under BLOGROLL. Scroll down past RECENT POSTS, RECENT COMMENTS, ARCHIVES, and CATEGORIES.

Agile Learning is Derek Bruff’s blog on teaching and technology. Bruff is director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He says about Agile Learning, “This is my blog, where I write about topics that interest me: educational technology, visual thinking, student motivation, faculty development, how people learn, social media, and more.” Recent posts have covered Teaching with Digital Timelines, Flipping the Literature Class, and In-Class Collaborative Debate Mapping, or How a Mathematician Teaches a Novel.

Pedagogy Unbound is a regular column covering pedagogical advice from Vitae, a service of The Chronicle of Higher Education. David Gooblar is the editor/columnist. Gooblar is a lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. He describes the site as a place for college instructors to share teaching strategies. Recent columns include Learning More About Active Learning, 4 Simple Ways to Help Them Persist, and Start Planning Now for Next Semester.

Faculty Focus  from Magna Publications “…publishes articles on effective teaching strategies for the college classroom — both face-to-face and online.” Magna Publications serves the higher ed community.  Faculty Focus covers a range of topics primarily teaching-related, but also things such as academic leadership, edtech news and trends, and faculty evaluation. There is a lot of useful content on the site from practical to pedagogical. The Teaching Professor Blog will be of particular interest with recent posts on What Does Student Engagement Look Like? and a follow-up Six Things Faculty Can Do to Promote Student Engagement.

If your summer “to do” list included catching up on new teaching strategies, these sites will provide you with plenty of inspirational reading material.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Pixabay.com