To define how to write measurable learning objectives, we should answer first what a learning objective means. There is an inconsistency in literature about terms like learning goals, learning objectives, and learning outcomes, because they overlap in meaning. Another reason is because they have slightly different meaning based on whether we see them as program goals, objectives, and outcomes or whether we mean lesson specific learning goals, objectives, and outcomes. Exploring the meaning of each of these three terms we will lead us to the notion of why writing measurable learning objectives is important to design a pedagogically sound lesson.
A learning goal is the stated desired result, the intent to be achieved upon the end of a learning process. In both a program and a course, a description refers to the purpose and reasons of existence of the designed instruction. Learning goals are usually included in the description as general statements that relate to the selection of instructional strategies and assessment methods; the goals are the intended learning outcomes.
Learning outcomes are connected to assessment of learning; they are the achieved results – the gained skills, knowledge, or values initially described with the general learning goals and the specific learning objectives. In a bigger scale, learning outcomes overlap in meaning with learning goals. The alignment of program goals puts in perspective the learning process. Learning outcomes set faculty and student expectations and define the role of the student during the time one is in school and after graduation.
Learning objectives pertain to the specificity of the design of a course or program as foundational blueprint components. They may or may not exist if only learning goals/outcomes are outlined. Learning objectives in a bigger scale are the learning goals broken down to outline specific outcomes.
In comparison, in a smaller scale – within a lesson – the terms learning objectives and learning outcomes can be used interchangeably, because both refer to the specific results of the performed learning activities. The former refers to intended results, the latter to achieved results. Learning goals pertain to the lesson topic and general purpose of the lesson, while both learning objectives and learning outcomes are very specific.
So, whether created for a program, a course, or a lesson, learning objectives are specific statements that describe acquired abilities. Learning objectives show the connection between actions that lead to the end results and the desired end results themselves.
Many times, however, when writing objectives, instructors describe the instructional activities rather the intended results thus converting the learning objectives to teaching objectives. It is important to note that the objectives are to guide students in how well they are supposed to perform. Level of performance defines level of learning. So, setting learning objectives is about students’ learning. It is not about the lesson plan (course blueprint), it is not about the structure of the learning process (instructional strategy), or the subject matter (curriculum), but it is about the correlation of aligning the goals with the outcomes by aligning the learning activities with their assessment. Learning Objectives set expectations of tangible results of learning. Objectives should be measurable to gauge the amount and difficulty of instructional materials, activities and assessment. They should include the conditions and the criteria to measure performance.
Learning Objectives are the end statements, not the means. Each learning objective in the lesson should describe what students will be able to do at the end of a learning activity. I prefer to use the term objective to outcome, because it implies more initial control rather than just dealing with the results. Also, an outcome could refer to the lesson as a whole, but an objective should refer to each instructional strategy utilized in the lesson. Objectives correspond to demonstrated abilities, not to the learning processes. How can an ability be demonstrated? An ability can be demonstrated when it can be assessed during performance. Therefore the easiest path to write measurable learning objectives that describe the desired observable demonstration is to include a verb in each statement. Even if the outcome is covert, the objective should be a verb that indicates a behavior that can be measured directly; the accomplishment of the learning objective is assessed indirectly this way.
As an example, instead of this blog post, a training session could be organized for the purpose of educating faculty how to write measurable learning objectives. This is will be the overall learning goal of the lesson. A set of learning objectives will illustrate the outcomes of the instruction in order to demonstrate desired goal achievement. Each learning objective will be written as a sentence that include one verb that is what students have to perform in order to demonstrate their acquired abilities. Each verb is specific, observable and measurable as each objective targets one aspect of student performance.
Learning Goal: Upon successful completion of this session, participants will understand the difference among basic pedagogical terms, which will help them improve the instructional design of their courses.
Learning Objectives: Upon successful completion of this session, participants will be able to:
- Distinguish the meanings of the following three terms: learning goals, learning outcomes, and learning objectives.
- Write a set of measurable learning objectives for a lesson.
- Determine an appropriate learning activity and activity assessment for each learning objective.
Learning activities regarding Learning Objective 1:
- Explain the meanings of the terms: learning goals, learning outcomes, and learning objectives.
- Write a general statement using the appropriate combination of term pairs based on their meanings for a course and for a lesson.
Learning activities regarding Learning Objective 2:
- List all verbs that illustrate desired behaviors, which students should be able to perform at the end of the lesson to demonstrate learning mastery. Include conditions when applicable.
- Create criteria used to measure performance for each behavior (verb).
Learning activity regarding Learning Objective 3:
- Create, design, or select learning activity for each objective or measurable performance.
- Combine assessment criteria and learning activities.
Notice the verbs in the learning objectives are observable and measurable, because they are about concrete actions. In comparison, the verb in the goal: ‘understand’ is vague.
As in this example, what happens in most cases is that a learning goal as a general statement is accompanied with several specific learning objectives. These objectives are further broken down to even more specific learning activities that construct the lesson’s instructional strategy. The verbs in the objectives often illustrate the nature of the activity and its assessment. What distinguishes a learning objective from a learning activity is that the first is an intended demonstrated ability (end result) and the second is a scaffolding building block of a learning process. One learning objective can be achieved with more than one learning activity based on the level of difficulty, conditions and performance/assessment criteria. The art of teaching includes the ability to determine the level of difficulty and to apply creative design techniques in order to sustain flexibility throughout the length of the learning process (class, semester, program).
Writing measurable learning objectives depends on the successful alignment of all pedagogical components within a lesson and a program. Contact ATIG for examples and support, or sign up for a training session in September 2014.