Learning Goals and Objectives

Step One: Learning Goals and Objectives

Although the terms “goals” and “objectives” are often used interchangeably, it can be helpful to distinguish between these two concepts. Instructors should articulate for students both the goals and objectives of a course.

Learning Goals

Goals refer to big picture items in terms of content—what you want students to know, learn, encounter, or become familiar with in your course. Goals often focus on the “body of knowledge” an instructor intends to cover during a course. For example, an Introduction to the History of Christianity course may have the following goals:

  • Introducing the basic arc of the history of Christianity
  • Exposure to the main theological issues Christians have addressed
  • Familiarity with the diversity of Christian thought
Learning Objectives

Objectives are more specific than goals in terms of student behavior—what you want students to be able to do by the end of the course. Therefore, learning objectives should carefully consider students’ abilities and knowledge coming into the course. In articulating objectives, it may be helpful to complete this prompt:

“At the end of this course, students will be able to __________.”

Notice how this forces the instructor to think in terms of tasks that are specific and measurable. It also encourages the instructor to break down tasks into discrete cognitive processes. For example, “writing a research paper” seems to many instructors like a single task. But it involves mastery and synthesis of many component skills, such as reading and understanding source material or data, identifying an argument, enlisting appropriate evidence, organizing paragraphs, etc.

To push for greater clarity and specificity, use action verbs in your objectives. Here are some examples of strong learning objectives, with the action verb in bold. Note that less specific and less measurable terms—like “know”—are absent:

  • List the key chemical features and characteristics of basic food ingredients
  • Identify primary and secondary audiences of a text
  • Apply the economic concepts of “efficiency” and “equity” to government policy
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of information management models.

The appropriate action verbs for your learning objectives are determined by (1) the material; and (2) the level of thinking you want students to achieve. Some material, like atomic weights or conjugations of verbs, lends itself to simple memory. Here, “list,” “recite,” or “identify” might be good corresponding action verbs. But you likely want students to be able to do more than demonstrate that they have memorized something. You may also want them to solve equations or write sentences. Instructors need not think of moving students past but expanding and building upon lower-order thinking (e.g., remembering).

Alignment and Learning Taxonomies

Learning goals and objectives serve as the controlling factor of alignment for the course. Instructors should be able to articulate how all course components—learning activities and assessment—help achieve or assess the learning objectives (Fink, 2013). Taxonomies of Learning can help instructors determine the level of thinking that is appropriate to their course and the corresponding verbs, question stems, and potential learning activities (see Verbs and more for Bloom's Taxonomy).


Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.