The Objective of Learning Objectives

October 8, 2014 Aaron Dewald

“Why am I even in this class? I don’t even understand what we’re trying to do.” As a student, I’ve thought this about many classes I’ve taken. I suspect I’m not the only one. Most of the time, it’s because the objectives of the class aren’t communicated well – if at all.

As a busy teacher, writing learning objectives for your students might not be at the top of your “things to do before the semester starts” list, but it’s a very important piece to the learning process. Learning objectives are sometimes overlooked by teachers and professors. I mean, students are taking the course. They’ve read the description and it should be obvious what they’re going to learn, right? Torts. They’re going to learn about torts. Unfortunately, “students will learn about torts,” is not a very good learning objective… and, there is a good – and not so good – way to write learning objectives.

You may have written or have seen some objectives that go a little something like this: “Students will learn about the law of torts.” Or, how about, “Students will gain an opportunity to learn about the three main types of torts.” These are examples of not-so-well written learning objectives. Too broad, too general, and perhaps, most importantly, immeasurable. In order for a learning objective to be effective, it needs to be measurable. The examples we’ve just seen are descriptions of what will happen in class; they are not measurable examples of what the student will learn. A better learning objective would be, “Students will identify and distinguish between the three main types of torts: Intentional, Negligence, and Strict Liability,” or, “Students will be able to analyze court decisions that created and continue to shape the law of torts.” Both of these learning objectives are specific, and most importantly, measurable.

Not only do learning objectives provide measurable outcomes, they also help with the structure of the class… for both the teacher and the learner. For the teacher, it will help them structure the semester / quarter / week / day in a meaningful way. What’s that mean? If we’re trying to build a structure of knowledge for our students, understanding which “bricks of knowledge” are in place before others helps you identify gaps in your coverage of the topic. Also, by creating these objectives, you’ll be able to see the intersection of learning content, activities, assessments, and feedback. For each objective, what kind of activities can we have our students do? What sort of cognitive processes do we want them to engage in? If the objective is measurable, how will we assess their performance? Finally, how will we provide them feedback to nudge them (the learner) “to the next cognitive level?” By thinking about all of these angles, the teacher can gain a better understanding of their course as a whole.

Students can gain a different kind of structure with learning objectives. In 1960, Professor David Ausubel examined the impact of information presented prior to a lesson – called an advanced organizer – on a student’s ability to learn. Later research on advanced organizers conducted by Mayer (1979) found an interesting result – advance organizers can influence learning. It seems there might be a connection between organizers and learning objectives. A short, but well-written, learning objective presented before a larger body of information can assist learners in organizing and comprehending that information. Think of learning objectives as a sort of advanced organizer, or scaffolding, of the incoming information.

Developing well-written learning objectives isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary step in building the foundation for your students’ future success. Our next blog post will talk about a way you can make your learning objectives more measurable – through the use of rubrics.


About the Author

Aaron Dewald

Aaron is currently a Ph.D. candidate in learning science, which gives him a unique perspective on technology use in pedagogical situations. Aaron received his B.S. in Information Systems from North Dakota State University in 2001, and his M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Educational Technology from the University of Utah in 2010.

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