Writing Better Learning Objectives

When I attended the Zicklin Business School Summer Teaching Seminar in 2007 (and again this year), the first thing I noticed was that the terms “learning goals” and “learning objectives” are used interchangeably. This seems to be the case throughout much of the College. From my training and experience in strategic management and following the approaches of Robert Mager, the behavioral psychologist known for his books on instructional design – to me, goals and objectives are two different things, although connected. I strongly believe that to write better learning objectives, we need to define these terms and use them more precisely and consistently across the Baruch College community.

A well-written goal simply states an outcome or end result to be achieved. In other words, where do we want to go? While goals should be specific, they are often phrased in broader terms that need to be operationally defined (called “fuzzies” by Robert Mager). Now that we know where we want to go, how do we get there? This is where objectives come in. They should be specific and measurable and state what must be done to achieve the goal. In the case of learning objectives, they should be phrased from students’ perspective, not teachers’.

From an instructional design perspective, learning objectives have three purposes:

  • Serve as a guide in designing a course
  • Communicate to students what they are expected to achieve
  • Assist in evaluating instruction

I found a good article summarizing Robert Mager’s approach to writing learning objectives: “How to Write Great Learning Objectives.” I don’t adhere to Robert Mager’s approach as a strict formula to follow, especially when it comes to less tangible subjects – instead I use his approach as a guideline in writing more specific and therefore clearer learning objectives. I have found his approach in writing learning objectives very useful in guiding and improving instruction. The place for us to start, though, is clearly defining learning goals and objectives and using these terms consistently.

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4 Responses to Writing Better Learning Objectives

  1. Dennis Slavin says:

    So, my first contribution to this blog is to voice a slight disagreement with my colleague and co-conspirator in its creation. I’m still flummoxed by the distinction between goals and objectives; perhaps some examples would help. Meanwhile I’m content for the terms to be used interchangeably so long as they focus on what we want students to achieve. That said, most of us seem to prefer “goals” (specific, not fuzzy) and the campus guide to writing them appears at http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/facultyhandbook/LearningGoals.htm I guess I’m ready to be convinced that the distinction is worth making, but I’m not there yet.

  2. Tomasello says:

    I’m not getting into that aquinian argument (if that is a word), but having had a hand in writing some such recent list, it would have been helpful to have had a knowledge of Bloom’s Taxonomy (http://www.officeport.com/edu/blooms.htm), something that a colleague shared in Luke’s blog workshop. The link is a very simple statement of what, I think, is expanded in Dennis’s link.

  3. Leah Schanke says:

    As I’ve stated, goals tell us where we’re going – the end result we are trying to achieve. Having objectives without any goals is like having a list of items or tasks that appear to be related but without a clear unifying purpose. Why should students care about learning objectives (beyond a concern for grades)?

    I would like to share a story about a job I once had – management was very good about communicating performance objectives, and we worked very hard to achieve them, and we were successful (management even took us out to lunch), but nothing was communicated regarding how the objectives were linked to department or organizational goals. The result was burnout and high turnover (I only lasted 1 year despite a great performance review and promotion).

    Using goals clearly communicates the greater purpose of our courses and plays a role in engaging students and fostering deeper learning. For examples of goals that are translated in specific learning objectives, please have a look at:


    The examples are not perfect (i.e. using “understand” in course objectives), but I think they represent a step in the right direction.

  4. Dennis Slavin says:

    The Skidmore link finally clarified what people mean by this distinction and I see its utility. But I think we’ve gone too far down the road of goal-as-outcomes to make this change now.

    Was Bloom not included in the learning goals site? He is supposed to be there. I’ll add him today.

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