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Writing Learning Objectives

Course learning objectives are specific, measurable outcomes that you expect successful learners to achieve by the end of a course. They describe ascertainable competencies, attitudes, and knowledge that your students can expect to gain.

On “Backward Design”
from Grant Wiggens and Jay McTighe
Understanding by Design (1998):

Why do we describe the most effective curriculum design as “backward”? We do so because many teachers begin with textbooks, favored lessons, and time-honored activities rather than deriving those tools from target goals or standards. We are advocating the reverse:

One starts with the end—the desired results (goals or standards)—and then derives the curriculum from the evidence of learning (performances) called for by the standard and the teaching needed to equip students to perform.

For instructors, articulating the course learning objectives helps clarify expectations and guides the development of a course. The practice of referring to learning objectives while creating lectures, assignments, and assessments keeps these all of these teaching components conceptually aligned.

For students, learning objectives describe exactly what to expect from a course and provide a rationale for the work they're asked to do.

To write learning objectives that work for you, try this exercise:
Make a list of knowledge, skills, or competencies you wish students to gain from taking your course. Try to keep the ideas on your list specific, observable, and measurable as well as aligned with your department's expectations for the course. Start with a stem sentence that begins:

At the conclusion of the course/unit/module, students should be able to...

and then supply a specific verb, such as explain, list, describe, demonstrate, calculate, order, design, report, compare or analyze. Consider the level of achievement you expect for each item on the list, and whether students will be expected to achieve it with or without aids (e.g. dictionary, reference guide, etc.).

The outcomes you describe should be concrete and appropriate for the level of the course. A few examples are, “describe concepts of...,” “apply formulas to...,” “evaluate arguments for...” or “assess validity of experimental designs.”

» View a more extensive list of action verbs derived from Bloom's Taxonomy

Knowledge Comprehension Application Analysis Synthesis Evaluation
Count
Define
Describe
Draw
Identify
Labels
List
Match
Name
Point
Quote
Read
Recall
Recite
Recognize
Record
Repeat
Reproduces
Selects
State
Write
Associate
Compute
Convert
Defend
Discuss
Distinguish
Estimate
Explain
Extend
Extrapolate
Generalize
Give examples
Infer
Paraphrase
Predict
Rewrite
Summarize
Add
Apply
Calculate
Change
Classify
Complete
Compute
Demonstrate
Discover
Divide
Examine
Graph
Interpolate
Manipulate
Modify
Operate
Prepare
Produce
Show
Solve
Subtract
Translate
Use
Analyze
Arrange
Breakdown
Combine
Design
Detect
Develop
Diagram
Differentiate
Discriminate
Illustrate
Infer
Outline
Point out
Relate
Select
Separate
Subdivide
Utilize
Categorize
Combine
Compile
Compose
Create
Drive
Design
Devise
Explain
Generate
Group
Integrate
Modify
Order
Organize
Outline
Plan
Prescribe
Propose
Rearrange
Reconstruct
Related
Reorganize
Revise
Rewrite
Summarize
Transform
Specify
Appraise
Assess
Compare
Conclude
Contrast
Criticize
Critique
Determine
Grade
Interpret
Judge
Justify
Measure
Rank
Rate
Support
Test

» Download a course planning grid to check alignment as you design your course: Word doc  or  PDF

Try using your learning objectives to guide your teaching, checking back to them continuously. As you plan and teach your course, ask yourself for each new element:

  1. Does this course content (or activity, practice, assessment, or feedback) support one or more specific learning objective? Then reverse the question when reading through the objectives: Is this objective being supported through specific course content, etc.?

  2. Is this objective being evaluated at the point in the course where students are expected to have achieved it? Prior to that?

  3. Are students made aware of how each element of their coursework relates to their achievement of a course objective?


Reference

Wiggins, G., and J. McTighe. 1998. Understanding by design. Arlington, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.