Developing Course Learning Objectives

By Sara Rathburn

Knowing where you intend to go with a course—and having a mental map of your overall goal—increases the chance that you, and your students, will actually end up there at the end of the semester.

Breaking a mental map down into individual learning objectives—written statements organizing and defining the specific knowledge, skill-sets, and/or abilities your students should acquire—will help make achieving the course goals more manageable; more doable.

Besides focusing your students' attention on a clear set of priorities, establishing learning objectives will help you focus more closely on planning, organizing and delivering instructional content relevant to achieving your overall goal.

In addition, having specific learning objectives will provide you with a basis for analyzing the cognitive levels you expect to see your students rise to, as well as help you assess and evaluate the course, and its learning outcomes, at the end.

So…what constitutes an effective learning objective?

There are three major components:

  1. A description of what students should know or be able to do
  2. The conditions under which students will demonstrate their proficiency
  3. The criteria for evaluating students' knowledge and/or performance

Learning objectives differ from course goals in that they are more specific, stating in measurable terms, what the student should know or be able to do as a result of your instruction. The actual course goals are more general.

For instance: The course goal of GEOL122 (Geology of Our Environment) is that students gain an appreciation of how human activities affect planet Earth. Two learning objectives related to this goal are more specific:

Learning Objective #1: Given a set of geologic conditions, students will be able to identify the potential hazards associated with the given condition.

Learning Objective #2: Given geologic data on frequency of hazards, students will be able to calculate the recurrence-interval associated with the hazard.

Note that the course goal focuses on the big picture, an intangible, which is difficult to measure. The two learning objectives, on the other hand, focus on observable student performance; on producing one single learning outcome per objective.

Learning objectives can be written for an entire course or for individual assignments. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives recommends including verbs that clearly indicate observable, measurable student responses (e.g. identify, analyze, interpret, and calculate).

By focusing your classroom instruction around established learning objectives, you emphasize the measurable knowledge and tangible skills you expect your students to be acquiring throughout the semester.

Doing so will help you design effective student assessments (exercises, quizzes and tests) as well as send a clear message indicating around what core content material your students should be setting their study priorities.


Arreola, R. A., (1998). Writing Learning Objectives. Retrieved August 18, 2008, from


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