How this will help:
- Articulate the value of learning objectives for structuring your course designs.
- Write learning objectives for your online course that use learner-centered language.
Most of the time, when setting out on a journey, you know where you are headed and have a sense of how you’ll know when you’ve reached your destination. Learning objectives serve to define that destination for your course – it’ll be much easier for your students to engage with your course if they know where they are headed.
Most of the time, when setting out on a journey, you know where you are headed and have a sense of how you’ll know when you’ve reached your destination. Learning objectives serve to define that destination for your course – it’ll be much easier for your students to engage with your course if they know where they are headed and it will help you as you navigate the process of design.
One of the experiences many faculty new to online teaching often identify as different from their experience teaching face-to-face is engaging in an explicit design process. Most instructors teach the way they were taught, and historically, most of us were taught from a content-centric model, meaning you decide what content you want to teach, and then you teach it.
Designing a course can, in some ways, be compared to planning a road trip. A content-centric approach to course design is like deciding what tourist attractions you want to see (e.g. Niagara Falls, the Alamo, and the Vietnam War Memorial in one trip) but not defining the final destination. A backward design approach, in contrast, starts with deciding what your final destination is (e.g. your cousin’s house in Rochester, NY) and then deciding which gas stations, tourist attractions and hotels will structure your journey to make sure you get there.
When creating an online course, though, one has to think through the course design in a more detailed and explicit way (although these same design principles are useful and can be applied to face-to-face teaching). One of the common models for course design (both online and face-to-face) is the backwards design approach. Backward design, from a high level, includes three steps: identifying the desired results, determining the evidence that those results have been attained, and developing learning experiences that will help learners build that evidence. This module will focus specifically on the first step in backwards design: identifying and writing learning objectives.
What are learning objectives?
In their simplest form, learning objectives are statements describing what someone will be able to do after they engage in a learning experience. There are different schools of thought as to how much detail belongs in a learning objective, but regardless of one’s philosophy, every learning objective contains three basic elements:
- A brief description of the context in which the learning objective is relevant
- An active verb describing what a learner will know, be able to do, or value
- A brief description of the content, skill or value connected to the objective
For a first draft of a set of learning objectives, begin each objective with the phrase, “At the end of this [course, module, lesson, degree program, etc], learners will be able to…” This phrase serves as the overarching context for your learning objectives. Note that learning objectives are focused on what the learner will be able to do, not what the teacher will teach. This learner-centric approach has many advantages – the first of which is it can help you, as an instructor, begin to imagine how you’ll know whether someone has been successful in your course (or other learning experience).
The opening phrase of the objective is followed by an active verb. Many instructors, when drafting learning objectives for the very first time, default to verbs like “understand” or “know.” The learning objectives you write will be more useful to you and your learners if you push yourself at least one step further. Ask yourself, “How will I be able to tell if they understand this concept?” Do they need to verbally recall definitions? Do they need to calculate something? Do they need to critique something? What does understanding look or sound like in your discipline? The more specific you can be, the better. It isn’t very helpful to your students to hear, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
One way to find verbs more specific than “understand” and “know” is to take inspiration from a framework commonly used in education: Bloom’s revised cognitive taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom (a noted educational psychologist), in partnership with others, identified six categories of objectives: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create. Within each of these categories, instructors and education experts have identified verbs that describe activities that a learner can engage in to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. There are multiple resources online for finding verbs (e.g. this table from Fresno State or this visual from Johns Hopkins).
The third component of a learning objective, the content or skill to be learned or demonstrated, highlights your priorities for the learning experience and can situate the experience within the larger context of the curriculum. Below are some examples of learning objectives for different kinds of learning experiences.
Example learning objectives:
Lesson or Module:
- At the end of this module, learners will be able to calculate the molecular weight of different molecules with known chemical formulas. (Chemistry)
- At the end of this module, learners will be able to identify examples of chiaroscuro in Spiderman graphic novels and describe the effect(s) of that chiaroscuro on readers. (Media Studies)
- At the end At the end of this course, learners will be able to compare and contrast different theories of human motivation. (Psychology)
- At the end of this course, learners will be able to analyze primary sources from different decades within the 19th century to understand the shift in gender roles over time. (History/Gender Studies)
- Upon graduation, learners will be able to conduct independent research on social phenomena using qualitative and quantitative research methods. (Sociology)
- Upon graduation, learners will be able to place peripheral intravenous lines. (Nursing)
There are tools available to help you build your learning objectives. Arizona State and University of Central Florida host such tools. Arizona State’s tool follows the above model in which every learning objective has three component parts. The University of Central Florida tool gives users the opportunity to provide very specific assessment descriptions and proficiency levels in their learning objectives.
I have some learning objectives, now what?
When designing for online learning, generally we set our learning objectives well before we do anything with the content of the course. These learning objectives then guide every step of the design process, from which content is used to the assessments. For example, if you specify in your learning objectives that you want students to be able to evaluate a large concept critically, using a multiple choice assessment is typically not what we would recommend to demonstrate that type of learning. If you are working with an instructional designer, having some idea about what your learning objectives are can be really helpful to get the process moving more quickly. You might want to take some notes down, or use a planning worksheet.
Final thoughts on learning objectives
There’s no one answer to how many learning objectives a course should have. In general, when an instructional designer works with a faculty member to set objectives, it is typically done at a high level (more like goals) as well as at a modular level (by unit or by time). If you are in a hurry, it can be helpful to think about learning objectives in terms of what you want to have students learn during the course of a particular week.
It is important, though, to keep in mind that one of the goals of learning objectives is to help learners understand the priorities for their learning. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their book Understanding by Design, encourage instructors and course designers to differentiate between objectives around knowledge and skills that are essential for enduring understanding, important to know and do, and worth being familiar with.
Although learning objectives can help you design your course, they are also useful for your students. Sharing your learning objectives with them explicitly can help learners link the concepts in the course together and to their broader curriculum.
- Try to write 2-3 learning objectives for a week. You do not have to share them with students, but it will help guide your development and keep things organized.
- Write your learning objectives down. There are lots of online course design planners that can help articulate how you are teaching the course.
- Not everyone likes writing learning objectives. Don’t feel the need to be creative. Some objective builders that can help you are:
University of Michigan
Arizona State University- Learning objective builder
University of Central Florida- Learning objective builder
Available on Amazon- Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). United States: ASCD.