"Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks.  The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn."

— Herbert Simon


Why Focus on Learning Objectives?

Learning Objectives, competencies, outcomes statements, whatever you call them, are are intended to:

  • guide decisions about assessment and evaluation methods

  • provide a framework for selecting appropriate teaching and learning activities

  • give students information for directing their learning efforts and monitoring their own progress

  • provide a framework for selecting and organizing course content

  • communicate our intentions clearly to students and anyone using the materials produced from them

Key Components to Good Learning Objectives

  1. Student-centered
    Learning objectives should be student-centered; for example, stated as "Students should be able to _______.“

  2. Consider component skills
    They should break down the task and focus on specific cognitive processes. Many activities that faculty believe requires a single skill (for example, writing or problem solving) actually involve a synthesis of many component skills.

  1. Use action verbs
    Objectives should use action verbs to focus on learning explicit, and communicate to the students the kind of intellectual effort we expect of them. Furthermore, using action verbs reduces ambiguity in what it means to "understand."

  1. Observable and measurable
    Objectives should be measurable. We should be able to easily check (that is, assess) whether students have mastered a skill (for example, asking students to "state" a given theorem, "solve" a textbook problem, or "identify" the appropriate principle). 

Brainstorming Learning Objectives

Here are some questions you can ask to start brainstorming learning objectives for any domain.

  • Are there and standards that you must consider as you craft learning objectives?

  • Is this a particularly challenging topic? What makes it hard? How do students go wrong? What misconceptions have you seen?

  • Is this a pre-requisite skill/concept for other topics? If so, what level of proficiency is needed?

  • What activities might you use to assess students on this objective? Think of easier/harder examples.  

  • Is prior knowledge needed to achieve this objective, if so, has the student been given it in a prior lesson? Do they need to be refreshed?

  • What are the barriers your students would have to achieve the objective?

  • Do the objectives consider options that will allow all students the opportunity to reach them? 

  • Are the objectives stepping stones that guide learners toward the instructional goal?

Building out your Skill Map

You will use the learning objectives and skills to develop activities that build-up to and scaffold the highest cognitive level specified by the learning objective.  Skills are constructed just like learning objectives, but are “smaller” in grain size and taken together make up the ability to achieve the learning objective they support.

Some things to consider as you break-down each learning objective into skills:

  • Skills represent the “unpacking” or breakdown of each learning objective into its supporting skill (how would you know if the student was performing poorly on that learning objective).

  •  Skills may be steps in a process and/or knowledge components of the learning objective.

  • Terminology and concepts that build up to the learning objective.

  • Skills should build-up to highest cognitive level that the learning objective is intended to achieve.

  • Each skill should cover a concept from which to derive several activities or questions to practice and/or assess it.

  • One guideline to follow is to derive no less than 2 and no more than 5 skills for each learning objective.

    • if there are fewer than 2, consider that the supported objective is actually a skill of another objective.

    • If there are more than 5, the supported objective might be too large and needs to be broken-down into more than 1 learning objectives.