Writing Effective Learning Objectives

The following post first appeared as an article in our Innovative Instructor print series.

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. 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 module. This includes the concepts they need to learn, and the skills they need to acquire and be able to apply.

Learning objectives are made up of 3 parts:

  1. Behavior: a description of what the learner will be able to do.
  2. Criterion: the quality or level of performance that will be considered acceptable.
  3. Conditions: a description of conditions under which the student will perform the behavior.

The following is a learning objective that has each of the three parts listed above:  After completing this class students will be able to write an historical article in chronological order when given a random list of events about the Second World War.

Instructors should be thinking about what a successful student in their 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.

Clearly defined objectives form the foundation for selecting appropriate content,Diagram of the relationships between Learning Objectives and Learning Activities and Evaluation Plan indicating that learning objectives should both inform and be informed by learning activities and the evaluation plan. learning activities and evaluation plans. Learning objectives allow 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 evaluation activities, evaluating students, evaluating instruction and even evaluating the curriculum.

Learning objectives should have the following SMART attributes.

  • Specific – objectives that are clearly stated and consistent with the goals of the curriculum.
  • Measurable – data can be collected to measure student learning.
  • Appropriate – for the level of the learner.
  • Realistic – objectives that are doable.
  • Tailored – to the worthy or important stuff.

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 [see this list from Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence] and these are categorized according to the level of achievement at which students should be performing. (See “Bloom’s Taxonomy: Action Speaks Louder” from the Innovative Instructor series). 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 a number of 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.

Since Blooms taxonomy establishes a framework for categorizing educational goals, having an understanding of these categories is useful for planning learning activities and ultimately, writing their learning objectives. The following list of learning objectives are written at each of the six levels in Bloom’s taxonomy.

  • Remembering: The students will recall the four major food groups without error.
  • Understanding: The students will summarize the main events of a story in grammatically correct English.
  • Applying: The students will multiply fractions in class with 90% accuracy.
  • Analyzing: Students will discriminate among a list of possible steps to determine which one(s) would lead to increased reliability for a testing a concept.
  • Evaluating: Evaluate the appropriateness of the conclusions reached in a research study based on the data presented.
  • Creating: After studying the current economic policies of the United States, student groups will design their own fiscal and monetary policies.

Additional Resources

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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

 

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