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Writing learning objectives

What is a learning objective?

Well-written learning objectives can give students precise statements of what is expected of them and provide guidelines for assessing student progress.  Our goal for students is learning and if students don’t know what they should be able to do at the end of class then it will be difficult for them to reach that goal.

Clearly defined objectives form the foundation for selecting appropriate content, learning activities, and assessment measures. If objectives of the course are not clearly understood by both instructor and students, if your learning activities do not relate to the objectives and the content that you think is important, then your methods of assessment, which are supposed to indicate to both learner and instructor how effective the learning and teaching process has been, will be at best misleading, and, at worst, irrelevant or unfair.

You can also guide student learning by explaining how a course relates to others in the department, college or university.  For example, students from all across campus take math courses, science courses, English courses, and so forth.  How does your course fit into the student’s general education, and what will students will be able to do after taking your course that will help them in future courses?

Learning can occur in the absence of teaching but teaching has not occurred if there is no learning!

Think about one of the classes you are currently teaching.  What would you like for each student to know and be able to do when he/she has completed your course?  At the university level, we want students to learn more than a set of memorized facts.  Rather, we want them to develop the higher thinking skills and techniques that will enable them to be lifelong learners.

Learning objectives

Specific statements describing what you and your students intend to achieve as a result of learning that occurs both in class and outside of class.  They can be categorized in the following way:

  1. Cognitive objectives emphasize knowing, conceptualizing, comprehending, applying, synthesizing, and evaluating.  These objectives deal with students’ knowledge of the subject matter, and how students demonstrate this knowledge.
  2. Psychomotor objectives involve the physical skills and dexterity related to the instruction. Successful instruction involves teaching new skills or coordination of old ones (e.g., physical coordination involved in playing tennis or a musical instrument).

Attitudinal objectives 

Specific statements about attitudes, values and emotions that students will have as a result of taking part in class activities.

What learning objectives emphasize

Learning objectives emphasize observed activity, student activity and student outcomes. [more]

Advantages of using learning objectives

Writing and using learning objectives has numerous advantages.  [more]

Writing learning objectives using Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy of the cognitive domain, or thinking skills, can be helpful in constructing course learning objectives. Bloom and colleagues found that over 95% of exam questions required students to activate low-level thinking skills such as recall (1956). In addition, research has shown that students remember more content when they have learned a topic through higher thinking skills such as application or evaluation.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide, you can create learning objectives and exam questions that activate and assess different, as well as higher, levels of student thinking. [more]

Bloom's Taxonomy is also useful in writing multiple-choice exam questions. [more]

Additional information

Archer, Patricia.  (1979).  Writing Higher-Level Learning Objectives: The Cognitive Domain.  New York: Media Systems Corporation.

Bloom, Benjamin S., et. al. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, New York: David McKay Company, Inc.

Centre for Learning and Development.  (1977).  Writing Learning Objectives, Module #2, Teaching and Learning:  An Individualized Course for Instructors in Higher Education.  McGill University, Canada.

Geis, G.L. (1972).  Behavioral Objectives:  A Selected Bibliography and Brief Review.  ERIC, Stanford University: Stanford, CA.

Hopson, M.H., Simms, R.L. & Knezek, G.A.  (2000-2001)  Using a Technology-Enriched Environment to Improve Higher-Order Thinking Skills.  Journal of Research on Technology in Education, Vol. 34, No. 2, 109-120.

Mager, Robert F. (1962). Preparing Instructional Objectives, Belmont, CA: Lear Siegler, Inc./Fearon Publishers.

Mager, Robert F. (1972). Goal Analysis, Belmont, CA: Fearon Publishers.

Pascall, Charles and Geis, George (1977) Writing Learning Objectives, Module #2 (Teaching & Learning Series), McGill University.

Scott, T.  (2003).  Bloom’s Taxonomy applied to Testing in Computer Science Classes.  Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, Vol. 19, 1, 267-274.

Zheng, A.Y., Lawhorn, J.K., Lumley, T. & Freeman, S. (2008)  Application of Bloom’s Taxonomy Debunks the “MCAT Myth”,  Science, Vol. 319, 25, Jan

Page last updated: Sep 21 2011
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