How to write learning objectives

Writing clear, measurable learning objectives for lesson seems simple; it isn't. Here are some steps that can make it easier.

How to write learning objectives

My biggest teaching breakthrough happened during one of my worst teaching failures. It was 2009, and I was teaching my first flipped course, an introduction to scientific computing for mathematics majors. Students watched videos on the MATLAB topic of the week, then came to class to work in small groups to write code that solved problems. Sounds good, right? It wasn't. From the beginning of the course, students were frustrated with the workload. Many stopped doing the pre-class activities, and class meetings became a battle of wills. Only after eight weeks of this did I finally discover what the matter was: Students told me that they just didn't know what they were supposed to be able to do, or how to know if they were doing it well enough. I had failed to take the primary first step in designing an effective course or lesson: writing clear, measurable learning objectives.

A learning objective for a lesson[1] is just a clear, measurable action that a student should be able to do once the lesson is over. Clear means clear from the students' perspective; measurable means there needs to be some way to know whether the objective has been met, or how far away the learner is from meeting it, so we can give helpful feedback to students. This sounds simple, but it isn't. When I give workshops on flipped learning or mastery grading, I always lead participants through an activity of writing objectives for a given lesson; it is without exception the part of the workshop where faculty struggle the most. Many have never tried writing objectives for lessons before; many have tried but gravitate to objectives like "Use the Chain Rule" (not clear) or "Understand the importance of the binomial coefficient" (not measurable). The workshop often becomes a crash course on learning objectives, usually with great results.

Writing clear, measurable learning objectives for a lesson is more of a craft than a science, but there are steps you can follow to guide you. Here are the steps I teach to my workshop participants:

  1. Scan the lesson and ideate a list of what students should be able to do once it's over. For example, if the lesson for the day is to cover one section of a textbook, then read through that section and make a running list of what students should be able to do after it concludes. Simple enough; the tricky part is to focus on action. What should students be able to do? For example, this textbook section on combinations and permutations contains a lot of content, but what should students be able to do with it? There are many possible answers: State the definition of a $k$-permutation; compute a binomial coefficient using the closed formula; solve complex counting problems involving $k$-permutations; and so on. List the things you want your students to be able to do.
  2. Phrase each of these items as an action, centered around a concrete action verb. Completely avoid any verbs that do not denote action but rather an internal state: "Know", "appreciate", "understand", and so on. Why? Don't we want students to know, appreciate, and understand things? Of course; but as the instructor, how will you know whether a student knows, appreciates, or understands something sufficiently or whether they need to keep learning and improving? The answer to that question --- the action they perform to demonstrate their knowledge, appreciating, or understanding --- is the real learning objective and that's the verb to use. If you need inspiration, look up any online Bloom's Taxonomy reference and there's usually a list of verbs attached to each level.
  3. Edit the list to remove inessential objectives and combine redundant ones. For each item, ask: Do students really need to be able to do this? Or is it unnecessary, or can it be inferred from combining two other objectives? Academics are terrible at minimization. We usually want to just keep adding stuff into a lesson because it looks cool, regardless of whether it's really necessary. This is one reason why so many academics complain of not having enough time to do things. Instead, ruthlessly eliminate the non-essentials from your learning objectives (if not from the lesson itself). This is the best form of "time management" that I know.
  4. Check the list against Bloom's Taxonomy. Speaking of Bloom's Taxonomy, this is a good place in the process to check that your learning objectives aren't overly concentrated in one level of the taxonomy. A lesson doesn't always need at least one learning objective in each level of the taxonomy. But we should avoid having every single objective in the bottom 1/3 of the pyramid; or having no objectives in the top 1/3; and so on. In other words, is your lesson balanced?
  5. Edit the list again. At this point, you have a minimal list of essential learning objectives for your lesson each item of which is clear and measurable, and it's relatively balanced in terms of cognitive level. Congratulations! But it's probably not perfect, so go through it again and edit for clarity and measurability. For example, in a recent workshop where faculty went through this process, one of their learning objectives was "Learn how to compute a derivative with the Chain Rule". Their edited version: "Compute a derivative with the Chain Rule." That's much clearer! Pro tip: Begin the sentence with the verb.
  6. (Optional) Put the list in order from least complex to most complex. This isn't necessary, but if you are using flipped learning, it's step two in my seven-step process for flipped learning design. Reordering the learning objectives in sort of a reverse-Bloom's Taxonomy order, with the simplest at the top of the list and in ascending order of complexity, helps you and your students see the progression of difficulty in the lesson, and it makes it easier to know which objectives to focus on in pre-class work versus in-class work. It's also not much work for you.

If you know what you'll be teaching in the Fall, early summer is the perfect time to write learning objectives for your courses. For the last several years, I've begun the planning process of my classes by setting aside a 2-3 hour block in May or June for each Fall class, and writing out every learning objective for every lesson in the course. This is definitely a 2-3 hour process, but in the summer we typically have that time. And doing so now saves huge amounts of time and effort later when planning activities and assessments, because the learning objectives tell you what students need to do in those activities or assessments.

What are some of your processes for writing learning objectives?

  1. We should differentiate between course-level objectives, module-level objectives and so on. Course-level objectives may not be so specific; they are the big-picture goals that students should attain during the course, and these may not be particularly measurable. For example verbs like "Know" or "Understand" might work as course-level objectives. In this article I am referring to learning objectives at the lowest possible level, the individual lesson. These objectives must be clear and measurable, as I'll explain. Generally speaking the more we "zoom in" on a course the more clear and measurable the learning objectives should be. ↩ī¸Ž