The skinny on learning objectives

By Garet Marling, Instructional Designer at Educational Technologies at Missouri (ET@MO)

Designing an online course is never easy. If it were, you wouldn’t need professionals like me. But it’s not rocket science, either. Unless, of course, you’re teaching rocket science. Then I guess it gets a little rocket science-y. But the take-home message is this: formulate good learning objectives, and everything else gets easier.

First of all, everything should proceed from your learning objectives. Once those are defined, the whole process of designing your course really does take on its own momentum, because it facilitates all of the other decisions you have to make. Wondering about the worth of that term paper assignment? If you’ve written quality learning objectives, then wonder no more! Same goes for other assessment instruments, course materials, and technology integration decisions. Real, robust learning objectives will simplify every design decision you make about your course. If you can draw a line from a single learning objective, through course materials, and all the way to assessments, then chances are you’re good to go. So why doesn’t everyone already do this? Probably because writing learning objectives is totally boring.

Candid, right? Well it’s true: the whole process of writing learning objectives is excruciatingly dull. But course design is a “pay me now, or pay me later” scenario. If you want a good online course (and I contend that the principles are applicable to face-to-face courses as well), you can either start with objectives, or you can spend the rest of your design and development time line wrestling with decisions you could have made at the outset. So how do you make these magical objectives?

Here are the three criteria that any good learning objective should satisfy. A good learning objective:

  1. describes a competency of a student who has successfully completed the course you’re designing. Think of your ideal student. Then, consider what that student should be able to do as a result of successfully completing your course. Now, try to describe those competencies one by one.
  2. is written from the student’s perspective. Objectives aren’t descriptions of what you’ll have students do in the course; they’re what they’ll be able to do afterward. So start out with a statement like, “Upon successful completion of this course, students will…” and go from there!
  3. is measurable. That is, the verb you choose should indicate (as clearly as possible) how a student will demonstrate the competency you’re describing.

Objectives serve another function as well: relating to your students exactly what they should get out of the course. You’re essentially giving them a road map to success. I could go on and on about these miracle-workers of instructional design. Instead, I’ll close with simple advice. Objectives: use them.