The desired learning goals that instructors have for their students form the foundation for writing effective learning objectives. Understanding the characteristics of the learners and their need for instruction will support instructors in writing learning objectives of significance.

Backward Design

Professor Erica Halverson from the University of Wisconsin–Madison explained this Backward Design Framework in the previous module. It is shared below for a refresher.

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There are many strategies to choose from to develop learning objectives. One popular course design strategy is Backward Design (Understanding by Design, Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Rather than the traditional approach that begins with defining and developing topics and content to be covered, the Backward Design model begins by identifying the desired results and then working backwards from those results to develop instructional activities and content that expressly target the achievement of those results.

As a refresher, the three stages of Backward Design are:

  1. Identify desired learning goals and outcomes. What will students be able to know and do as a consequence of your class or curriculum?
  2. Determine how students will demonstrate what they know and can do.
  3. Plan instructional strategies, resources, and learning experiences that best help students reach your learning goals and outcomes.

1: Identify Desired Result 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence 3: Plan experiences and instruction

In order to develop course objectives, it is important to first understand the desired results (key understandings) that you want your students to have or be able to do after taking your course. These are the six facets of understanding that are discussed by Wiggins and McTighe (2006).

These big ideas can be part of your course description and help you form your more specific course objectives. Course goals (or key understandings) are not measurable since they are broader statements. Goals may instead be included in the course description.

Goals vs. Objectives

Here is a good explanation of the difference between goals and objectives, courtesy of SUNY Cortland.

Tip: Objectives should relate to outcomes, not processes. (see example below)

Process = As a requirement of this course the student will write a research paper.

Outcome = Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to produce a research paper that demonstrates a command of research methods and APA style.

In the course overview, you can also see how the course objectives for this course explain what you will achieve by the end of the course. And each module provides an overview with the supporting module objectives.

Characteristics of Quality Learning Objectives

Tip: Write objectives so that learners will say, “Yeah, I want that!”

Objectives statements are often so boring that most learners just hit the “Next” button to get past them. That is a shame, because well-written objectives provide a strong motivator for learners.

Try imagining a learner jumping out of bed exclaiming, “Hurrah! Today I’m going to learn to ______________.”

Objectives should be written with your audience—"your students"—in mind. Keep the learning objectives statements simple and brief. Avoid including too much detail so that the effort of writing the objectives does not become discouraging and the requirements are not overwhelming to the students.

A well-written learning objective is a brief statement with several important characteristics:

  1. Completes this sentence: "Upon completion of this module, you will be able to (DO SOMETHING)."  Learning objectives do not describe activities instructors intend to provide, such as “view a video” or “read chapter one.” Those are tasks or learning activities and may contribute towards a student’s achievement of a learning objective.
  2. Begins with an action verb. Use good action verbs like “explain,” “describe,” “discuss,” “assess,” “determine,” “analyze,” or “differentiate." Words to avoid using include “understand,” “know,” and “learn.” (See Bloom’s Taxonomy, below, for more verbs.)
  3. Contains an object/noun that summarizes the desired knowledge or skill that students are expected to achieve.
  4. Precisely describes behavior that can be observed or evaluated.

Note: The summary of this module provides simple steps to follow when writing learning objectives.

MAP: Measurable, Appropriate, Precise

As you think about and examine your own learning objectives, note that learning objectives need to be both measurable and precise. Avoid terms that are open to interpretation—for instance, "understand," "learn," or "know"—as these words are not measurable. An instructor cannot create an assessment that will enable him or her to observe or evaluate that the learner "understands" the concept.

Consider the following objectives from a history course:

  1. Understand the Civil War.
  2. Describe the impact of the Civil War on the southern economy.

Regarding the first objective, what kind of assessment would enable the instructor to evaluate or observe that learners understand the Civil War? The word "understand" is vague and cannot be objectively assessed. Regarding the second objective, the instructor can evaluate or observe that the learner is able to "describe the impact of the Civil War on the southern economy."

When crafting measurable objectives to prepare for alignment, remember this simple acronym: M.A.P. We can use the acronym M.A.P as a reminder about necessary components of well-written objectives. At its most simple form, these objectives must be measurable, appropriate, and precise.