What Is a Learning Objective?

writing learning objectives

A learning objective describes what learners should know or be able to do at the end of the course that they couldn’t do before.

A learning objective should clearly define the expected outcome of a course in terms of demonstrable skills or knowledge that will be acquired by the learner as a result of the instruction provided. 

Why Learning Objectives Are Important

Simply put, they guide your choices. When you have a clear focus, both you and your learners can easily get there. Well-defined and articulated learning objectives are important because they:

  • provide students with a clear purpose on which to focus their learning efforts
  • inform your selection of instructional content and activities
  • guide your testing and assessment strategies

The Difference Between a Learning Goal and a Learning Objective

Learning Goals are what you hope to accomplish in your course: the overall goals that do not necessarily correlate with observable and measurable behavior.

Learning Objectives are brief, clear statements about what students will be able to do once they complete instruction.

Understanding the difference is important as establishing clear learning objectives will inform how you structure the rest of the course, from content to assessment. We’ve covered this relationship more extensively in a previous blog post about the Magic Triangle of learning.

How to Write Learning Objectives

Well-written learning objectives should include observable behavior which can be measured. “Learning” and “understanding” are admirable instructional goals, but they are ambiguous and not observable or measurable.

Instead, words that describe what the student will do to show that he or she understands are more useful. Corporate training teams often lean on their good ole’ instructional design standby, Bloom’s Taxonomy, to write learning objectives. “Action” verbs that correspond to the cognitive domains within Bloom’s Taxonomy are much more specific and useful.

By way of a quick review, 

Original Bloom’s Taxonomy from 1956Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy in 2001

The EduTech Wiki has provided some helpful “observable” verbs for each cognitive domain in Bloom’s Taxonomy:

learning objective verbs

The more specific the verb, the more clearly learners will understand what is expected of them once the training ends. Instructional designers should invest the time thinking about these verbs which will form a large part of the learning objectives.

Finding the “Goldilocks” Learning Objective

Instructional designers and L&D leaders should lean on subject matter experts (SMEs) for guidance in writing learning objectives. SMEs, due to their experience, have a much better idea of what will reasonably work in the context of a given course. 

In addition to using specific action verbs, learning objectives have to have a “Goldilocks” fit: they must be just right. If the learning objective is too ambitious, learners (and their managers) will feel overwhelmed and frustrated at the prospect of not meeting their goals. If the learning objective is too easy, learners will not feel challenged and may easily get bored or distracted.

To address these potential pitfalls, instructional designers can consider breaking down more difficult topics or unifying easier ones. Indeed, the learning objective can often inform the scope and design of the course itself. 

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What Is a Learning Objective?