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What Are Learning Objectives?

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A learning objective should describe what students should know or be able to do at the end of the course that they couldn't do before. Learning objectives should be about student performance. Good learning objectives shouldn't be too abstract ("the students will understand what good literature is"); too narrow ("the students will know what a ground is"); or be restricted to lower-level cognitive skills ("the students will be able to name the countries in Africa.").

Each individual learning objective should support the overarching goal of the course, that is, the thread that unites all the topics that will be covered and all the skills students should have mastered by the end of the semester.

Writing Learning Objectives

In a web search you will find many different models for writing learning objectives. We’re going to keep it simple and focus on objectives that speak to the knowledge and skills students will learn.

Skills: What students should be able to do by the time the course is completed.

Knowledge: What students should know and understand by the time the course is completed.

It is useful to identify the skills and knowledge the students should gain throughout the course by writing sentences that begin:

Students investing fully in this course will be able to . . .


  • identify and trace the development of _____ literature from _____ to _____ (English)
  • discuss, interpret, and ascribe meaning to the following set of data (Math)
  • create a visual representation of the water cycle (Science)

Each example uses a verb which defines student performance in a particular area. As you create your learning objectives think in terms of what evidence students would provide to demonstrate a level of mastery of the objective.

Word choice in writing learning objectives is key. Words and phrases like “understand,” “become familiar with,” “show an appreciate for,” “develop necessary skills” are ambiguous. What evidence would a student produce to show “familiarity” with a subject?

Here is an example of a learning objective from initial draft stage (ambiguous) to measurable achievement.

Initial draft: Students will be familiar with the major theories of conflict resolution.

Revision: Students will be familiar with withdrawal, smoothing, forcing, compromising, and problem solving.

Further revision: Students will summarize the concepts of withdrawal, smoothing, forcing, compromising, and problem solving.

Specific: Students will summarize the five major approaches to conflict resolution: withdrawal, smoothing, forcing, compromising, and problem solving.

Higher order thinking objective: Students will choose and defend a conflict resolution approach appropriate for a given situation.

Learning Objectives and Measurable Outcomes

Methods of assessment of student learning can take many forms—brief in-class assessments, exams (written or oral), papers, oral presentations, team projects. Criteria for success (rubrics) should be developed so that students understand what is expected of them, and so that they can use feedback to see where they need to strengthen their performance.


Expanded Definitions of the Common Verbs Used for Learning Objectives:
I really like this site because it breaks verbs like "define" into their component parts. These definitions give students a more complete understanding of objectives.