Writing Goals and Objectives

“If you’re not sure where you are going, you’re liable to end up some place else.” ~ Robert Mager, 1997

Instructional goals and objectives are the heart of instruction. When well- written, goals and objectives will help identify course content, structure the lecture, and guide the selection of meaningful and relevant activities and assessments. In addition, by stating clear instructional goals and objectives, you help students understand what they should learn and exactly what they need to do.

Course Goals

A course goal may be defined as a broad statement of intent or desired accomplishment. Goals do not specify exactly each step, component, or method to accomplish the task, but they help pave the way to writing effective learning objectives. Typical course goals include a number of subordinate skills, which are further identified and clarified as learning objectives.


A course goal may be defined as a broad statement of intent or desired accomplishment.

For example, an English 102 goal might be to prepare students for English 103. The goal “prepare students” specifies the big picture or general direction or purpose of the course. Course goals often do not specify student outcomes or how outcomes will be assessed. If you have difficulty defining a course goal, brainstorm reasons your course exists and why students should enroll in it. Your ideas can then generate course-related goals. Course goals often originate in the course description and should be written before developing learning objectives. You should also discuss course goals with your colleagues who teach the same class so that you can align your goals to provide students with a somewhat consistent experience of the course.

Course Goal Examples

Marketing course 

Students will learn about personal and professional development, interpersonal skills, verbal and written presentation skills, sales and buying processes, and customer satisfaction development and maintenance.

Physical Geography course

Students will understand the processes involved in the interactions between, spatial variations of, and interrelationships between hydrology, vegetation, landforms, and soils and humankind.

Theatre/Dance course

Students will investigate period style from pre-Egyptian through the Renaissance as it relates to theatrical production. Exploration of period clothing, manners, décor, and architecture with projects from dramatic literature.

General Goal Examples

  • Students will know how to communicate in oral and written formats.
  • Students will understand the effect of global warming.
  • Students’ perspective on civil rights will improve.
  • Students will learn key elements and models used in education.
  • Students will grasp basic math skills.
  • Students will understand the laws of gravity.

Learning Objectives

We cannot stop at course goals; we need to develop measurable objectives. Once you have written your course goals, you should develop learning objectives. Learning Objectives are different from goals in that objectives are narrow, discrete intentions of student performance, whereas goals articulate a global statement of intent. Objectives are measurable and observable, while goals are not.

Comparison of Goals and Objectives

Goals are

  • Broad, generalized statements about what is to be learned
  • General intentions
  • Intangible
  • Abstract
  • Cannot be validated
  • Defined before analysis
  • Written before objectives
Goals should be written from the instructor’s point of view

Objectives are

  • Narrow, specific statements about what is to be learned and performed
  • Precise intentions
  • Tangible
  • Concrete
  • Can be validated or measured
  • Written after analysis
  • Prepared before instruction is designed

Objectives should be written from the student’s point of view

Well-stated objectives clearly tell the student what they must do by following a specified degree or standard of acceptable performance and under what conditions the performance will take place. In other words, when properly written, objectives will tell your learners exactly what you expect them to do and how you will be able to recognize when they have accomplished the task.  Generally, each section/week/unit will have several objectives (Penn State University, n.p.). Section/week/unit objectives must also align with overall course objectives.

Well-stated objectives clearly tell the student what they must do ... and under what conditions the performance will take place.

Educators from a wide range of disciplines follow a common learning objective model developed by Heinich (as cited by Smaldino, Mims, Lowther, & Russell, 2019). This guide will follow the ABCD model as a starting point when learning how to craft effective learning objectives.

ABCD Model of Learning Objectives

  1. Audience: Who will be doing the behavior?
  2. Behavior: What should the learner be able to do? What is the performance?
  3. Condition: Under what conditions do you want the learner to be able to do it?
  4. Degree: How well must the behavior be done? What is the degree of mastery?

Writing a learning objective for each behavior you wish to measure is good instructional practice. By using the model as illustrated in Table 2, you will be able to fill in the characteristics to the right of each letter. This practice will allow you to break down more complex objectives (ones with more than one behavior) into smaller, more discrete objectives.

Writing a learning objective for each behavior you wish to measure is good instructional practice.

Behavioral Verbs

The key to writing learning objectives is using an action verb to describe the behavior you intend for students to perform. You can use action verbs such as calculate, read, identify, match, explain, translate, and prepare to describe the behavior further. On the other hand, words such as understand, appreciate, internalize, and value are not appropriate when writing learning objectives because they are not measurable or observable. Use these words in your course goals but not when writing learning objectives. See Verbs to Use in Creating Educational Objectives (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy) at the end of this guide.

Overt behavior: If the behavior is covert or not typically visible when observed, such as the word discriminate, include an indicator behavior to clarify to the student what she or he must be able to do to meet your expectations. For example, if you want your learners to be able to discriminate between good and bad apples, add the indicator behavior “sort” to the objective: Be able to discriminate (sort) the good apples from the bad apples.

Some instructors tend to forget to write learning objectives from the students’ perspective. Mager (1997) contends that when you write objectives, you should indicate what the learner is supposed to be able to do and not what you, the instructor, want to accomplish. Also, avoid using fuzzy phrases such as “to understand,” “to appreciate,” “to internalize,” and “to know,” which are not measurable or observable. These types of words can lead to student misinterpretation and misunderstanding of what you want them to do.

…avoid using fuzzy phrases such as “to understand,” “to appreciate,” “to internalize,” and “to know,” which are not measurable or observable.

The Link Between Learning Objectives and Course Activities and Assessment

After you have crafted your course goals and learning objectives, it is time to design course activities and assessments that will tell you if learning has occurred. Matching objectives with activities and assessments will also demonstrate whether you are teaching what you intended. These strategies and activities should motivate students to gain knowledge and skills useful for success in your course, future courses, and real-world applications. The table below illustrates objective behaviors with related student activities and assessments.

Matching cognitive domain levels of learning (Bloom’s Taxonomy) with related student activities and assessments. Source: adapted from Penn State University (2007)
Level of Learning For Knowledge Student Activities and Assessments
Define
(facts, tables, vocabulary lists)

Activity: Self-check quizzes, trivia games, word games

Assessment: Vocabulary test, matching item quiz

Solve or calculate
(concepts)

Activity: Have students show examples/non-examples, student-generated flowcharts

Assessment: Equations, word problems with given set of data

Manipulate, operate, build, demonstrate
(rules and principles)

Activity: Suggests psychomotor (hands-on) assessments, design projects and prototypes, simulations

Assessment: Checklists, videotape the session

Describe or explain
(problem-solving)

Activity: Case study, small group critical thinking, teamwork, pair share

Assessment: Essays, research papers, discussion questions

Present
(synthesis, create)

Activity: Develop a portfolio, design a project

Assessment: Speech, presentation

 

Examples of Linked Instructional Goals, Objectives, and Assessments

Instructional Goal 

Students will know the conditions of free Blacks during antebellum south.

Learning Objective

In at least 2 paragraphs, students will describe the conditions of free Blacks in pre-Civil War America, including 3 of 5 major points that were discussed in class.

Assessment

A traditional essay or essay exam.


Instructional Goal

Students will know how to analyze blood counts.

Learning Objective

Given a sample of blood and two glass slides, students will demonstrate the prescribed method of obtaining a blood smear for microscopic analysis.

Assessment

Instructor observation of student demonstration in a lab using a criterion checklist of critical steps for objective scoring.


Instructional Goal 

Students will understand how to interpret classic literature.

Learning Objective 

Students will compare/contrast Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s Jaw of Malta in terms of plot, character, and social-political themes.

Assessment 

A traditional essay or essay exam.

Summary

Instructional goals and learning objectives are the heart of your role as a learning facilitator. When written well, goals and objectives will assist you in identifying course content, help you structure your lecture, and allow you to select activities and assessments that are relevant and meaningful for learning. Make sure that you check with your department to determine whether they require certain learning objectives for a course, for example to align courses with Illinois Articulation Initiative (IAI) requirements for transferrable general education courses (see the current NIU Undergraduate Catalog section on “Illinois Articulation Initiative Core Curriculum).

Several sources are available that you can use to check the accuracy and efficacy of your learning objectives. The sources below provide checklists and other instruments to help you design effective and meaningful objectives.

References

Mager, R. F. (1997). Measuring instructional results: How to find out if your learning objectives have been achieved. (3rd ed.). Atlanta, GA: CEP Press.

Mager, R. F. (1997). Preparing learning objectives: A critical tool in the development of effective instruction. (3rd ed.). Atlanta, GA: CEP Press.

Penn State University, Schreyer Institute (n.p.). Learning outcomes assessment tutorial. https://sites.psu.edu/loatutorial/

Smaldino, S. E., Lowther, D. L., Mims, C., & Russell, J. D. (2019). Instructional technology and media for learning (12th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Selected Resources

Gronlund, N. E., & Brookhart, S. M. (2009). Gronlund’s writing instructional objectives (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

 

 

 

 


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Suggested citation

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Writing goals and objectives. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from http://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guide/instructional-guide

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