The little foot note that is rarely read and often prefaces a lecture (don’t do this!). But do learning objectives really deserve the reputation they get? Another way to think of a learning objective is to view it as a goal. Common sense dictates that if you begin with a goal, rather than a problem, you might end up trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. In fact, you will fail to address the real issues and learning needs of your students. See our articles on identifying the gap for further details on this. Therefore, writing a learning objective actually has more to it than meets the eye.
Take a moment to consider the problem your students face and the type of learning gap this represents. Only after you have done this can you start to create a learner-centred goal. You will also need to consider how much of this gap you intend to bridge. It is important to remember that not all learner motivation is created equal. See our article on knowing your learner to read more on motivation. The specifics of your learning objectives will depend upon what your learners are trying to achieve. For example, do they want to solve a problem, are they there for the journey or is it for self-enrichment, satisfaction or pleasure? Try and answer these four questions:
- Who are you teaching? What is their problem? What is their motivation?
- What do you want them to be able to do?
- In what conditions should they do this?
- To what degree of expertise and accuracy?
The Anatomy of a Learning Objective
Before we discuss how a learning objective should look, first consider who the learning objective is for. While you might think that learning objectives are only for the students, they also serve an important role for the teacher:
Objectives focus learners onto key points. They know what is expected of them and the level of performance required.
Objectives provide clear directions for lesson design and create a target or benchmark for assessment.
If a learning objective has two recipients, how should it be written to cater for both of these needs? The answer is to make it SMART. Ensure the learning objective meets the following five characteristics as this enables the goal to be broken down into bite sized chunks and will satisfy requirements for both students and the teacher.
- Specific: Does the objective specify exactly what leaners should achieve?
- Measurable: How can you check that they have learned it?
- Achievable: Is it attainable given the learners level?
- Relevant: Is the objective relevant to the learner?
- Time-Bound: When should they learn it by?
Taxonomy of a Learning Objective
Now we know that learning objectives target multiple recipients, what exactly are their different purposes? William Thalheimer proposed four categories of learning objective:
Guides learners’ attention to important aspects of material.
Guides learners to understand competencies expected.
Instructional Design Objectives
Guides design and development of lesson plan.
Instructional Evaluation Objectives
Guides evaluation of the lesson.
Writing a Learning Objective
By now you should have a destination in mind. The more specific the goal, the easier it is to design the learning path. While writing your objective, remember the ultimate aim of teaching is to enable your students to do something they were not capable of doing before. If you cannot tell if they have achieved the learning objective, you should reconsider your learning objective and unpack it further. There are four components to include in your objective:
Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956)/Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) separated descriptive words used in learning objectives into increasingly demanding cognitive categories. They separated them into the following categories:
Learners exhibit previously learned material without understanding by recalling facts, terms, basic concepts and answers.
Learners demonstrate basic understanding of facts and ideas. They are able to state a problem in their own words.
Learners solve problems by applying acquired knowledge, facts, techniques and rules in a different way to new situations.
Learners examine information in detail and break it down into its component parts. They are able to identify motives or causes, make inferences and can find evidence to support generalisations.
Learners present and defend opinions by making judgements about information, validity of ideas or quality of work based on a set of criteria.
Learners compile information together in a different way to create a new meaning, new structure or to add value.
You can use the different levels of sophistication in several ways. Learning objectives could use these terms progressively as you build upon the level of sophistication required, you could invert the order, or you could mix and match the levels as required. The important thing is that learners are able to pin-point the level of learning that is required.
Teaching is more than just imparting knowledge. It is about getting your students to do something with this information. Gloria Gery (1991) recognised this and separated learning into six stages of increasing ability. It takes a lot of time and practice to reach the highest levels. You will need multiple examples, interactions and feedback. The categories are listed below:
Sophisitcation vs. Proficiency
It is also possible to plot sophistication against proficiency. Here is an example:
Although similar to proficiency, how far you want your learners to progress a distinct consideration. It refers to how far you want your learners to progress in their acquisition of new knowledge or skills as opposed to the proficiency they can perform with the new knowledge or skills. Consider how far they should progress; indeed, how far can they progress? Some knowledge and skills can be acquired quickly, but others will take time. This takes us onto the final consideration.
Information has different attributes. When learning new knowledge or skills you will find that it is either fast, slow or somewhere in the middle. Information that falls into these different categories have different attributes.
- Fast Information
- Follows explicit rules. All the right answers can be listed. It is best taught by presenting the concept and following up with practice. You can use checklists and specific procedures to enhance application.
- Slow Information
- Follows tacit rules. It is difficult to say what is correct and many examples are required to recognise patterns. They are high level conceptual and strategic skills which need expert coaching and extensive practice to develop. Learning should be supported in a stepwise progression and will take time.
It is important to recognise that you may not change a learner’s perspective because of deeply held beliefs. It is possible to make them aware of this limitation and lead them to self-assessment and evaluation. However, you should acknowledge what cannot be done and respect their foundations (cultural identity, core values and personality traits). You must always bear in mind the long-term goal of your teaching.
- Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals; Benjamin Bloom
- A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives; Lorin Anderson, David Krathwohl
- Electronic performance support systems: How and why to remake the workplace through the strategic application of technology; Gloria Gery
- Design for how people Learn; Julie Dirksen
- Work-Learning Research: New Taxonomy for Learning Objectives