Creating Learning-Centered Course Objectives

If there is a single key to successful teaching, it may just be the clear articulation of course goals and instructional objectives. What you want students to be able to do when they have completed your course serves as the guiding principle for designing course activities, selecting information to present, and devising appropriate assessment strategies. On a larger scale, the goals and objectives of individual courses feed into the objectives of an entire program, ultimately defining the skills and capabilities of a well-rounded graduate of that program.

Without clearly stated goals and objectives, many students believe that their primary learning task is to guess what their professor wants them to know. If they guess wrong, they may end up resenting the professor for being unreasonably demanding, tricky, or obscure; and the professor, who knows in his or her own mind exactly what the students were supposed to learn, may dismiss those who guessed wrong as unmotivated, lazy, or just plain dumb.

As you prepare to teach a course, pay close attention to your course goals and instructional objectives to make them clearer and more learning-oriented.

Course Goals and Instructional Objectives

Course goals are fairly broad statements reflecting what students should learn. An example of a course goal is “Students will develop a basic speaking knowledge of the French language that will enable them to carry on a simple conversation with a native French speaker.” Another course goal might be “Students will become familiar with basic economic concepts and be able to use them to discuss current economic situations.” Course goals express the general focus of the course and help students understand the direction the course will take.

Instructional objectives are more specific statements that describe expected actions or behaviors, reflecting ways in which students’ behaviors will change and/or things students will be able to do once the course is completed. They take the guesswork out of matching the professor’s expectations with the students’ performance. You may devise several instructional objectives, depending on the number of key topics you address in your course. One instructional objective of a botany course, for example, might be “Students will be able to use a dichotomous key to identify angiospermous plants to the level of families.” An instructional objective in a sociology course might be “Students will be able to analyze a selected number of American institutions using the basic concepts and theories of the sociological perspective, and write an explanation of the analysis.”

Setting Goals

Objectives must be specific enough for you and your students to know what is expected and to be able to recognize when they been achieved. Approach goal setting from the perspective of the learners with whom you will be working. Use these questions to guide you:

  • In what ways will students be “different” when they finish the course?
  • What should students be able to do with the knowledge and skills gained in the course?
  • What criteria will you use to evaluate student performance or describe successful performance?

Once you have formulated instructional objectives that address these questions, you’ll be able to select the subject matter you need to cover to help students meet the expectations of the course. Your objectives also will guide your choice of activities that help students practice the skills or thought processes they need to meet the objectives.

Writing Instructional Objectives

When writing instructional objectives, use specific action verbs to describe desired outcomes (see the box below for suggested action verbs to use when writing instructional objectives.) The more specific the task, the more likely it is that the students will learn to complete it.

Instructional objectives that express student accomplishment as knowing or understanding an idea or concept can lead to confusion. For example, the objective “Students will understand the mechanical energy balance equation” is less specific and its accomplishment more difficult to measure than the more specific “Students will be able to apply the mechanical energy balance equation to estimate the pressure drop in a process line.”

Evaluating a student’s understanding is not easy, and even the student himself may have trouble knowing if he understands a concept or not. For example, some students may think they understand if they merely memorize an equation—quite different from the instructor’s expectation for students to understand when to use—or not use—that equation. In writing objectives, avoid non-specific and subjective verbs like know, understand, appreciate, grasp the significance of, believe, or internalize. Think of what you will ask the students to DO to demonstrate their knowledge or understanding, and make those activities the instructional objectives for a particular course topic.

Instructional objectives generally consist of three parts: 1) a statement of the expected student outcome, 2) resources or conditions available to students to demonstrate they have met the objective, and 3) the degree to which the student must demonstrate what he/she has learned.

For example: “Given a list of significant historical events and without reference material or notes [resources and conditions], students will be able to identify [intended outcome] five events [degree of mastery] that led to World War I.”

Important: Instructional objectives describe what the students will do – not the instructor!

Benefits of Instructional Objectives

Well-formulated instructional objectives are more than just an advance warning system for your students. They can make teaching more focused and precise. Good objectives can

  • Make it easier to prepare lectures and assignment schedules.
  • Identify unimportant course material that students would simply memorize and repeat.
  • Facilitate construction of in-class activities, out-of-class assignments, and tests; you simply ask the students to do what your objectives say they should be able to do.
  • Assist new instructors teaching a course for the first time.
  • Help instructors of subsequent courses in a series know what they should expect their students to have learned previously.
  • Provide an overview of curricular coverage for departmental review committee or accreditation review.
  • Make the process of outcomes assessment smoother and more comprehensive.

Formulating detailed instructional objectives for a course, or even for a single topic in a course, is not nearly as easy as simply listing the course topics in a syllabus. The effort, however, is worthwhile. Many professors who re-formulate objectives for a course – even one they have taught for years – find themselves with a course that is more interesting and more challenging to the students and more enjoyable for them to teach.

Example Action Verbs for Instructional Objectives

analyze, apply, build, calculate, classify, compare, conjugate, construct, contrast, create, define, demonstrate, describe, design, distinguish, draw, estimate, explain, identify, illustrate, list, model, predict, recite, show, solve, sort, summarize, write

Resources

Felder, R.M. and Brent, R. (1997). “Objectively Speaking,” Chemical Engineering Education, 31(3), 178-179.

Cameron, B.J. (Ed.) (1993). Teaching at the University of Manitoba. Winnipeg: University Teaching Services, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg.