Developing Student Learning Objectives

Introduction and Definition

Learning objectives are statements that articulate the specific, measurable outcomes that an instructor expects successful students to achieve by the end of a course. The literature on course design recommends alignment among the three major course components: learning objectives, assessments, and instructional strategies and provides a definition of each component:​​​​​​​

  • Objectives articulate the knowledge and skills an instructor wants students to acquire by the end of the course.
  • Assessments allow the instructor to determine the degree to which the students are meeting the learning objectives.
  • Instructional strategies are used to foster student learning towards meeting the objectives.

Learning Objectives
Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation

Learning objectives can be viewed as the foundation for the process of creating alignment.  They are the starting point for designing the rest of a course: aligning objectives to tests and assignments and then to class activities that teach students the skills needed to accomplish these objectives.

This approach to course design has also been called Backward Design, which has been defined as “a process that starts with instructors identifying student learning goals and then designing course content and assessments to help students achieve these goals. Rather than starting with exams or set textbooks backwards design argues that ‘one starts with the end—the desired results (goals or standards) and then derives the curriculum from the evidence of learning (performances) called for by the standard and the teaching needed to equip students to perform’ (Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J., 1998).”

Glossary of Pedagogical Terms
Washington University at St. Louis Center for Teaching and Learning

Although learning objectives are most often derived from the content of a course (a unit,  a module, or a lesson), it is necessary to consider additional factors in developing them. These might include the following:

  • Discipline-related skill sets
  • Accreditation and other external accountability expectations
  • Program goals and objectives
  • University level competencies

At Alliant, every program has a curriculum map that indicates which objectives should be attained in each of its required courses. The program curriculum map should be consulted when course learning objectives are being developed.

Alliant Curriculum Maps

The literature on learning objectives is sometimes confusing because the terminology is not always used consistently. One way to differentiate the terms is that goals refer to an instructor’s aims for a course (instructor’s perspective), and learning objectives refer to the specific, measurable things a student will know and be able to do at the end of a course (student’s perspective). Learning objectives are sometimes called learning goals, learning outcomes, or competencies.

Course Objectives & Learning Outcomes
DePaul University Teaching Commons

Reasons to Develop Learning Objectives

Clearly identified learning objectives allow instructors to:

  • Make decisions about selecting course content
  • Design assessments that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills
  • Design teaching strategies or learning activities that will help students develop their knowledge and skills
  • ​​​​​​​Measure student learning accurately and effectively

Having access to articulated learning outcomes (in a syllabus, for example) helps students:

  • Decide if the course is a good fit for their academic trajectory
  • Identify what they need to do to be successful in the course
  • Take ownership of their progress
  • Be mindful of what they are learning

Setting Learning Outcomes
Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation

Criteria for Learning Objectives

To be effective, learning objectives should be student centered, focusing on what students will accomplish, not on what instructors will do. A well-written learning objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Result-oriented, and Time-bound (SMART).

  • Specific: Good learning objectives break down a broad topic into manageable components, and they are explicit about the desired outcomes related to these components.
  • Measurable: As guidelines for evaluation, learning objectives should help instructors decide how well students achieve the desired learning. Instructors must rely on external indicators (what the student says or does) to evaluate that student’s progress. For this reason, an instructor cannot evaluate progress based on what the student “learns,” “understands,” “knows,” or “feels.” Learning objectives need to deal with changes that can be observed and measured.
  • Achievable: Given the resources, timeframe, background, and readiness of the students, objectives should be achievable. The cognitive level of the learning objectives should be appropriate to the course level and student level.
  • Result-oriented: Objectives should focus on the results, rather than the process or activities that students are going to complete. A good learning objective describes the knowledge, skills, or attitudes that students should have acquired within the context of the instructor’s observation.
  • ​​​​​​​Time-bound: There should be a clearly stated the timeline, if applicable. This can help the instructor decide how well the learners should perform at each point in the course to be considered competent.

Learning Objectives
Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence

Writing Learning Objectives


  1. Make a list of the knowledge and skills you wish students to gain in the course; they should be specific, observable, and measurable. These should be derived from your own ideas about the course as well as your program’s curriculum map. This can be accomplished by using the phrase:“At the end of the course, students should be able to _____.”
  2. Determine the level of mastery you expect for each objective; then chose a specific action verb that represents the expected level of achievement for each item on the list. Level of achievement is often conceptualized in relation to Bloom’s taxonomy.“This taxonomy was originally created by Benjamin Bloom in 1956 to categorize a continuum of educational objectives. These objectives are described in terms of student-centered actions that represent the kind of knowledge and intellectual engagement we want our students to demonstrate. The updated version by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) represents the incorporation of new knowledge and thought into the original framework, which remains as relevant today as when it was created.”
    ▶​​​​​​​ Bloom’s Taxonomy
    Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational InnovationThe changes introduced in the 2001 revision of Bloom’s taxonomy “reflect more outcome-focused modern education objectives and include switching the names of the levels from nouns to active verbs. The two highest levels have also been changed with the pinnacle level now being ‘create’.  The revised levels are: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate and Create.”
    ▶​​​​​​​  Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy
    Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

    Additional sources on Bloom’s 
    Taxonomy that provide lists of verbs for each level include:

    ► Bloom’s Taxonomy
    Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

    ► Bloom’s Taxonomy
    Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning

    ► Identifying Learning Objectives
    St. Louis University Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

  3. When writing learning objectives, make sure that you have devised and developed a way to assess students’ achievements. Do you have a measure (test or assignment) that will let you know whether or not students have attained each objective at the point in the course when they are expected to achieve it?
  4. Use the learning objectives to guide your teaching. As you plan and teach your course, determine whether each new element supports one or more learning objectives. Inform students how each element of the coursework is related to the course learning objective.
  5. Check to determine whether each objective is being supported through specific course content. This process may call for continuous review and revision as the course progresses.

Examples of Learning Objectives

The following sites provide examples of learning objectives:

Learning Objectives Samples
Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation

Bloom’s Taxonomy Handout
Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning​​​​

Establishing Learning Goals
Brown University Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning

Evaluating Learning Objectives

Following is a Learning Objectives Review Checklist:

  1. Is the learning outcome measurable?
  2. Does the learning outcome target a discrete aspect of expected performance?
  3. Is the learning outcome student-centered?
  4. Does the learning outcome use an effective, action verb that targets the desired level of performance?
  5. Do learning outcomes measure a range of educational outcomes?
  6. Does the learning outcome match instructional activities and assessments?
  7. Does the learning outcome specify appropriate conditions for performance?
  8. Is the learning outcome written in terms of observable, behavioral outcomes?

Setting Learning Outcomes
Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation

Additional Resources