Why Does Writing Good Learning Objectives Matter?

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As a former adjunct instructor, later a training coordinator, instructional designer, and now a teaching and learning consultant, I have worked with many faculty on course design and how to articulate learning objectives. My experience has shown me that you can never emphasize enough the importance of having good learning objectives.

Often instructors find writing learning objectives arduous. They can appear to be merely a repetition of the content that they are teaching. Good learning objectives are not simply a list of topics to be covered in a course, rather they should illustrate the skills and applicable knowledge students will master. Good learning objectives benefit both students and instructors. In my experience, instructors who adopt learning objectives begin to write them for the entire course, individual units, and even for each lecture.

Why good learning objectives are important to students

Learning objectives communicate specifically what students should be able to do.

For instance*, students in an entry-level language class can have clear ideas of what they will get out of the class, if they read course learning objectives like these:

By the end of the course, with reasonable effort, you will be able to:

  • comprehend simple conversations and stories on everyday topics
  • write simple texts such as descriptions, narrations, letters
  • use appropriate verbal and nonverbal communication demonstrating proper etiquette for daily activities in a variety of cultural contexts.

Learning objectives tell students what is important.

From the above example, the students will know that focusing on daily basic conversation using proper etiquette might be more important than memorizing  unconversational vocabulary.

Learning objectives should be used to guide students as they work through the course, and to assess their learning progress.

Excellent learning objectives provide a guide for students when reviewing materials and preparing for assessments. Learning objectives are the most powerful if they are actionable and measurable.

Original Objective Specific, measurable and actionable objective
Learn how the physical and chemical attributes of the brain affect learning Be able to list three techniques for better studying that are derived from physical and chemical attributes of the brain
Be able to write basic programs in the Python programming language Be able to write Python programs to solve problems which require: sequential execution, repeated execution, and conditional execution
Understand and solve problems with conditional probability Identify situations and questions in which laws of conditional probability should be used and explain the impacts
Understand the role of epidemiology in quantifying the health effects of environmental hazards Define the concept of epidemiology and its role in determining the health effects of environmental exposures

Why articulating learning objectives is important to instructors

Articulating learning objectives helps instructors select and organize course content, and determine the types of assessments and learning activities to build for a course.

Articulating learning objectives helps instructors select and organize course content.

As an instructor, when you write and review the learning objectives in a course, you can identify the kinds of materials and topics that will be suitable to the learning outcomes most efficiently. With well-defined, actionable learning objectives comes the ability to quickly filter out texts or activities that do not suit the course.

Articulating learning objectives helps instructors determine assessment creation.

Do your students complain that you are assessing things that you have not specifically taught them? Do you struggle to write a question to assess a learning objective? If so, you should think again about learning objectives or redesign your assessment because the learning objectives and the assessment are not aligned to each other. Well-written learning objectives will help you build focused assessments aligned with the critical learning components of your course.

Articulating learning objectives helps instructors practice good course design.

Articulating learning objectives can help you guide you in the design of instructional strategies and learning activities. For example including group projects in class might be driven by a learning objective like “develop leadership, communication, conflict resolution skills” or “strategize and plan how to tackle complex problems and distribute work.”

Summary

When we talk to faculty, we always remind them that learning objectives should use learner-centered language, and be both specific and measurable. Define objectives in simple, clear language, and avoid jargon or references to advanced topics beyond the scope of the course. Often we recommend that our faculty revise broad, vague objectives (“understand” or “be familiar with”) into specific objectives that articulate clear value to the students.These objectives can be clarified by asking yourselves: “What would students do differently or check if they really “understood” or “were familiar” with the course material? Great learning objectives improve teaching and learning.

[*Thanks to Coursera, Duke and DKU faculty for learning objective examples]

References and Resources

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Haiyan Zhou

Author: Haiyan Zhou

Haiyan consults with faculty on the integration of technology into their teaching, primarily with the Health Sciences, and on developing online course materials and planning ways to offer programs through online or blended online/face-to-face formats. Her professional interests include collaboration tools, online teaching methods, e-learning, and internationalization in higher education.