How to Establish Learning Objectives for Your Course
How to identify learning objectives that will build toward the learning outcome you want.
“Upon completing this course…”
We’re all familiar with the phrase. It’s the classic language used to describe a course for learners. It is essentially a promise made to students about what they will gain from taking the course. Usually, the promise is a broad one, because it is meant to encompass the entirety of the course content. It should also inspire learners to complete the full course by providing a clear picture of its purpose.
For example, let’s say you’re offering a course on criminal law. When writing your syllabus, you want to establish the outcome of your course along the lines of: “Upon the completion of this course, students will have gained a knowledge of the American legal system that can act as a groundwork for a professional path in police work or paralegal employment.”
This is a fairly grand statement, and it gives anyone interested in the course a clear idea of what they should expect. But it doesn’t outline how the learner will achieve that outcome. That’s what learning objectives are about.
Learning objectives are the stepping stones toward achieving the right outcomes from your course. If you can lay them out clearly for your students, it will help you plan your own course while also providing your learners with the context for lesson material that will motivate them to master it for their course.
Applying Bloom’s Taxonomy to Online Learning.
In 1956, the educator Benjamin Bloom described a taxonomy to help classify learning objectives. The theory behind his classification was that every objective should progress in order from a broad, theoretical framework toward a specific, applicable one. The taxonomy was revised from the original in 2001, and currently it goes as follows:
- Remember: Bloom originally listed this as “knowledge,” and it’s a pretty clear first step on the path to learning. In this objective, the goal is to help the learner recall information, such as a new vocabulary word.
- Understand: Knowing is not the same as comprehension. Learners can memorize a list of vocabulary words, but if they don’t understand their meanings, it won’t do them any good.
- Apply: In this step, learners put their newfound knowledge to work. Continuing with our vocabulary example, a learner should be able to correctly put the vocabulary word in a sentence.
- Analyze: Learners should now be able to identify their new information. For instance, they should be able to describe the grammatical characteristics of their new vocabulary word (is it a noun or a verb?), as well as its declensions and conjugations.
- Evaluate: Is it correct or not? Self-evaluation is an important part of any learning process. Without it, learners are simply parroting information. This is the stage that builds critical thinking, so that a learner can explain and justify their choices.
- Create: Finally, learners should be able to incorporate their new information into the knowledge base they already possess. Learning new vocabulary words is only useful if they can be combined with a larger vocabulary pool and combined in new and interesting ways.
In this example, the learner has followed Bloom’s taxonomy through a fairly simple path, but this applies to more complex subjects as well.
For instance, if you’re teaching a computer programming course, you may begin by showing learners a new list of programming commands. Learners must remember the list and understand the new functions, apply them in a programming assignment, identify where they’ve used the new code, assess whether it was used appropriately or not, and finally deploy it along with the rest of their coding language in new and complex situations.
So, how do you apply this insight into creating learning objectives for your own course? Here are a few tips.
1. Write objectives that are specific and achievable.
If you can’t write learning objectives that are clear and comprehensible to your learners, your course is in serious trouble. Avoid vague language and concentrate on concrete objectives. A bad objective might be “expand the learner’s vocabulary.” The learner won’t know if you mean by one word or a hundred, which means they won’t know how difficult the lesson is likely to be and won’t be able to plan accordingly.
Instead, say “teach the learner twenty new vocabulary words a week.” This gives both you and the learner a clear goal.
2. Be able to measure and evaluate a learner’s progress and comprehension.
Many of these learning objectives apply to you as much as your learners. It’s one thing to offer learners instruction. But how do you know that they know the material? Each learning objective is an opportunity for you to create a feedback loop with your learners so that they can test their knowledge as they acquire it. This will also help you identify potential stumbling blocks for your learners where they are dropping out of your course.
3. Use action verbs to describe learning objectives.
This is a simple writing trick, but it has an important psychological impact: use imperative action verbs to describe the learning objectives. Not only do imperative sentences tend to be more concise and to the point, they also put the focus on doing. Plus, they make your learning objectives feel like a to-do list—which, when you think about it, they are.
If learning outcomes are the goal, learning objectives are the stepping stones along the path.
Learning objectives apply both to the course as a whole, and to individual lessons within the course. When written clearly, they not only provide structure to your program, they empower learners with the information they need to succeed.
So, if you’re struggling with your course plan, take a look at your objectives with Bloom’s taxonomy in mind. It may just show you the critical step you’re missing.