Helpful Techniques for Writing Learning Objectives

I want to refrain from sounding too superlative, but the importance of learning objectives cannot be understated. They are a fundamental, elemental, essential, vital, crucial and critical core to instructional design. After all, they are what determine the scope of learning experiences.

Truly, formulating learning objectives is an artform. It requires diligence, awareness, and even a little finesse. I’m sure there any many different ways to write learning objectives. However, I was inspired by a recent Pedagome Twitter chat to explain a few basic techniques that can help generate good learning objectives.


Course Goals

Your learning objectives can originate from the course goal(s) (may also be known as learning goals). A course goal is a broad statement of the intent or desired accomplishment. They do not specify each step, but they pave the way for writing good learning objectives. Typically, a course goal can consist of multiple leaning objectives, all pointing to the intent of the course goal. The course goal can also serve as a course description.

For example a course goal may read like this (courtesy of the University of Northern Illinois): students will learn about personal and professional development, interpersonal skills, verbal and written presentations skills, understanding sales and buying processes, and developing and maintaining customer satisfaction.

From here, numerous learning objectives can be generated to fulfill this course goal.

Course goals…

  • State broad, generalized statements about what’s to be learned
  • Reveal general intentions
  • Are intangible and abstract
  • Cannot be validated
  • Show long-term consequences
  • Are defined before knowledge analysis
  • Written before learning objectives


Learning Objectives

Once a course goal is decided, you can spawn multiple learning objectives that will support the goal. Learning objectives are different than course goals in that learning objectives…

  • State narrow, specified statements about an observed behavior
  • Reveal precise intention
  • Are tangible and concrete
  • Can be validated and measured
  • Show short-term consequences
  • Are defined after knowledge analysis
  • Written before instruction is designed

Unlike course goals, learning objectives must include an observed behavior that can be measured. Verbs like “know” “learn” and “understand” are not acceptable because they cannot be observed. They provide no evidence that the learner is actually knowing, learning, and understanding. Comprehension can only be validated by a behavior. 

Some examples of learning objectives:

  • Identify elements of editing
  • Describe the history of American immigration policy
  • Create a marketing plan for your organization


Use Bloom’s Taxonomy

Rely on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives to identify the type of verb you want to use for your learning objective.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework for categorizing educational goals. It has been widely accepted and applied to K-12 teaching and higher education. 

The framework underwent two iterations so far. The first (1956) consisted of six categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. Each category presents verbs representing the level of thinking skill.

The revised taxonomy (2001) became more dynamic. It used more categories to describe the cognitive processes thinkers encounter: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create (all include a level of subcategories).

Additionally, the taxonomy included types of knowledge that could be applied to the cognitive processes: Factual Knowledge, Conceptual Knowledge, Procedural Knowledge, Metacognitive Knowledge.

Where the categories converge show the verbs representing the thinking skill and type of knowledge involved. Bloom’s is incredibly helpful when identifying the observable behavior for the learning objective.


Compare Overt with Covert

If you are having trouble finding the right learning objective, you can first try to uncover the covert objective – this is like working backwards. The overt learning objective is the observable behavior you want to instruct toward and assess. The covert learning object is hidden. Covert refers to the learning that cannot be observed. These are the performances like “know” “learn” and “understand.”

Find the covert performance (know, learn, understand), and replace it with a word or two so it becomes a visible behavior and an acceptable indicator of comprehension. By replacing the covert with overt, you can revise your objective into something more concrete.

Examples:

  • Understand the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics becomes Explain the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics in a YouTube video
  • Learn how to be an instructional designer becomes Create a portfolio of instructional design examples


Try SMART

A key part of making good learning objectives is to make sure they are measurable. Though your objective may be observable, can it be validated or measured? SMART is a good mnemonic to use to verify an objective’s feasibility. SMART is commonly used in project management and employee-performance development.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-related. By using Bloom’s Taxonomy, your specificity should pretty much be covered. Measurable asks if you can quantify progress, which begs the question of how will your learners be assessed?

Make sure the behavior can be assessed, and therefore measurable. An example of a behavior that was too difficult to assess came from my mistake during a #pedagome Twitter chat. I came up with the objective that a learner could “Assemble a family tree” only to later realize that such an endeavor could include external problems and barriers that would result in the learner’s failure.

This leads into the A and R in SMART: Is the objective achievable? Is it realistic? Can the behavior actually be accomplished? Does the learner have control? Consider the kinds of conditions established for the learners. In a well-structured problem, check whether the objective goes outside the constraints. In an ill-structured problem, make sure the learner will meet the objective and not become lost.

Finally, make sure the learning objective can be met is a reasonable amount of time. For curricula with time limitations, use the time efficiently, but try not to overburden the learners.


Design Your Instruction

Once you have your learning objectives written, you can begin developing your instruction. You will find that your learning objectives are the compass for your design. They will help you navigate the design process and make decisions on what kind of instruction you should use. Also verify that your objectives still point toward your course goal.

Again, formulating learning objectives is an artform. It’s a messy process that requires a lot of re-thinking and re-design, as well as collaboration if that is your situation. Hopefully, these basic methods provide you a solid foundation for progressing forward in instructional design and learning experience development.