Framing Learning Objectives Guide

Framing Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are signposts that direct students along your course's learning pathways.

Writing learning objectives and establishing alignment between them and your materials and assignments is one of the most essential parts of the course design process.

“Alignment” refers to the relationship between the course materials, assignments, and learning objectives in your course. When a course has good alignment, the first two elements (learning materials and assignments) work together to help students master the third element (learning objectives).

When your course has good alignment, your learning objectives act as signposts throughout your course, letting students know the direction in which their learning experience is heading. It ensures that they clearly understand what’s required for assignments and that they have the resources they need to fully complete them.

In addition, when you write learning objectives at the start of your course design process, they help you plan the structure of your course and devise an overarching assessment strategy that guides students to higher levels of learning.


Why write learning objectives?

Learning objectives are clear and concise statements about the knowledge and skills students will acquire by the end of your course (for course-level objectives) or the end of one of its modules (for module-level objectives). Note that “module” is interchangeable with lesson, week, topic, or unit—go with whichever term makes the most sense to you/for your course.

Advice on how to write learning objectives often starts to sound nit-picky—perhaps even too much like a grammar tutorial—but consider that when they’re worded in the right way, learning objectives explain to students both what they’ll be doing in a module or lesson and why they’re completing its assignments.

Also, when you’re teaching remotely or your course is fully online, learning objectives stand in for the sort of conversations that naturally come up during a live class session, and ultimately, they may spare you from having to answer a lot of one-off questions from your students.


How should learning objectives be phrased?

Keep in mind these characteristics as you write course- and module-level learning objectives:

  • Student-centered: The learning objective uses active verbs and outlines competencies from the learner’s perspective.
  • Measurable: Outlined student competencies can be systematically evaluated and assessed.
  • Clear and concise: Only the components that are being evaluated are included.

Consider these examples of learning objectives that have been rewritten so that they model these characteristics.

CHARACTERISTICNOT METMET
Student-centeredDifferent theories of student development will be explored through lectures, readings, and assignments.You will name student development theories and describe key characteristics that distinguish them.
MeasurableYou will understand symbolism.You will identify examples of symbolism in poetry and incorporate symbolism in your own writing.
ClearYou will evaluate the Pop Art movement.You will evaluate the role of Pop artists in altering the definition of fine art.
ConciseYou will analyze American foreign policy from 18th-century diplomatic relations with Europe to the Monroe Doctrine, considering the ways in which shifts from expansionism and Manifest Destiny to isolationism and protectionism impacted relations with neighboring nations and American Indians.You will analyze how changes in American foreign policy during the 18th and 19th centuries impacted relations with neighboring nations and American Indians.
Characteristics of Effective Learning Objectives

Focus on outcomes.

In addition, your learning objectives should be outcome based rather than task based. In other words, they should specify the skills and knowledge students will be able to demonstrate once they’ve mastered the module rather than the assignments or activities they’ll actually be completing within it.

One workaround for this issue is to think of each learning objective as starting with the phrase, “After you complete this module, you’ll be able to…“.

Consider these revised learning objectives, which have been rewritten to be outcome rather than task based.

TASK-BASEDOUTCOMES-BASED
You will write a paper about French Colonialism’s impact on modern-day Africa…describe 3 examples of French Colonialism’s impact on modern-day Africa.
You will add a 300-word post to the discussion board comparing and contrasting key traits of Modernism and Postmodernism.…compare and contrast key traits of Modernism and Postmodernism.
You will demonstrate on a mannequin the 4 steps to administer CPR.…demonstrate the 4 steps used to administer CPR.
You will create an Excel spreadsheet that calculates the cost basis of an asset.…calculate the cost basis of an asset.
Task-Based Versus Outcomes-Based Learning Objectives

As these examples demonstrate, sometimes all that’s required to transform a task-oriented learning objective to an outcome-oriented one is to remove wording about the specific assignment with which it’s aligned.

Get to know measurable verbs & Bloom’s Taxonomy.

One of the most common errors people make when writing learning objectives is starting them with a non-measurable action verb, like one of the following:

  • understand,
  • know,
  • learn,
  • become familiar with, or
  • demonstrate an understanding of.

These verbs are problematic because they don’t describe specific actions students will take to demonstrate that they’ve mastered a concept or skill. Consider that to show they “know” or “understand” something, students typically end up identifying it from different options on a multiple-choice quiz question or describing it in a discussion post.

In addition, the verbs on this list don’t clarify the level of cognition expected of students, which will vary depending on your course’s level (100-level, 200-level, capstone, graduate, etc.). In the 1950s, a group of educators led by psychologist Benjamin Bloom identified 6 levels of intellectual behavior for classifying learning activities and objectives. Typically, they’re pictured as a pyramid, with lower-order thinking skills (knowing, comprehending) at the pyramid’s base and higher-order thinking skills (synthesizing, evaluating) at its peak. Ideally, anyone should be able to read your course objectives and see clear connections to specific levels of Bloom’s taxonomy that are appropriate for the type of course you’re teaching, e.g., a graduate-level course will have assessments that require students to use higher-order thinking skills.

Bloom’s original taxonomy was revised in 2000 by Lorin Anderson, one of Bloom’s former students, and David Krathwohl, one of Bloom’s original collaborators. One of the most significant changes made by Anderson and Krathwohl was the placement of “creating” at the top of the pyramid. (In Bloom’s original taxonomy, “evaluation” was considered the highest level of cognition, with “synthesis” immediately below it.) To reflect changes in teaching and learning scholarship and practice, Anderson and Krathwohl renamed synthesis to “creating” and moved it to the top of the cognitive hierarchy.

Graphic of Bloom's original taxonomy, depicted as a triangle with bands. Knowledge is at its base, then stacked on top in ascending order are comprehension, application, analysis, and synthesis. Evaluation is at its peak.
Original Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956)
Graphic of the updated version of Bloom's taxonomy, depicted as a triangle with bands. Remembering is at its base, then stacked on top in ascending order are understanding, applying, analyzing, and evaluating. Creating is at its peak.
Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (2000)

While you might already be familiar with this pyramid-style representation, you might not realize that Bloom’s taxonomy actually consists of two dimensions. Rex Heer at Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching created a chart to illustrate the relationship between the cognitive-process dimension (the pyramid) and the knowledge dimension of Bloom’s taxonomy. The knowledge dimension begins with concrete (factual) knowledge at its base and moves toward more abstract (metacognative) knowledge in the upper left. The addition of the metacognitive level to the knowledge dimension was another key change that Anderson and Krathwohl introduced when they revised Bloom’s taxonomy in 2000. By selecting a learning objective from this two-dimensional model, you can even more closely align an assessment with the learning outcome you want your students to achieve.

A graphic of the two-dimensional model of learning objectives, which combines Bloom's levels with 4 different knowledge dimensions (factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive)
Rex Heer’s Two-Dimensional Model

The text in this image is quite small, so for a more readable and printable version of Heer’s chart with additional explanation from its author, check out his article: “A Model of Learning Objectives” [PDF download].


What if I want to upgrade to digital media-based assignments?

Some of the assignment types referenced in these examples don’t match the types of media and activities that are now part of our everyday lives. To address this, educator Andrew Churches created Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy 2008. It aligns verbs associated with digital technologies with different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and models Bloom’s stages along a continuum, progressing from lower-order to higher-order thinking skills (outlined in a bottom-to-top orientation in Carranza’s infographic below).

Infographic of Andrew Churches's digital taxonomy, with icons for each activity listed next to corresponding levels of Bloom's revised taxonomy.
Image Credit: Ron Carranza, Arizona State University (Sneed, 2016)

Review the Global Digital Citizen Foundation’s full Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy chart [PDF download] for even more examples.

Consider revising your assessment strategy to use some of these newer types of assignments if you haven’t already—your students will then have the opportunity to practice completing the sort of work they’re more likely to engage in after graduation.


Conclusion

I can suggest ways to re-word your learning objectives if you find that yours sound repetitive or unclear, if you’re concerned about incorporating hard-to-measure learning goals into your course, or if you simply want to bounce ideas off of someone. Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or reach out to me directly via email.


Resources & further reading

Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Longman.

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook I: The cognitive domain. David McKay.

Churches, A. (2008). Bloom’s digital taxonomy. Education Origami.

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. Jossey-Bass.

Heer, R. (2012). A model of learning objectives based on “A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.” Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

Sneed, O. (2016, May 9). Integrating technology with Bloom’s taxonomy [Blog post]. TeachOnline.

Standards from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 6th Edition.” (2018). Quality Matters.

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