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Part Five: Identifying Learning Objectives

Objective: This part of the seminar will explore the difference between course goals and learning objectives and provide a basic introduction to scaffolding learning. Afterward, you should be able to distinguish between goals and objectives; you also should be able to draft measurable learning objectives for a course in your field.

Distinguishing Course Goals from Learning Objectives

If goals describe your hopes, wishes, and aims for a course (that is, the instructor perspective), then learning objectives articulate the specific, measurable things students will know and be able to do upon leaving your course (that is, the learner perspective).

Sometimes called learning outcomes, learning goals, and/or competencies, learning objectives are at the heart of effective course design. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what you call them - as long as you can distinguish between the aims you have for your work in a course and those you have for what students will learn in the course. Together, goals and objectives represent what Peter Filene has called the "two halves of the teaching / learning dialogue" (2005, p. 23).

The following instructional video discusses the distinction between course goals and learning objectives in greater detail. (Click to view a transcript of the video.)

Distinguishing Goals from Objectives from Reinert CTTL on Vimeo.

Now that you have a clearer understanding of what learning objectives are, let's take a look at how learning objectives can be used to structure student learning. After that, we'll ask you to begin identifying objectives for your own course.

Types of Learning Objectives

As discussed in the previous video, there are different kinds of learning objectives, corresponding to different domains of learning, and there different ways of thinking about the relationships between them. To begin identifying learning objectives for your own course, you must first identify which types of learning you're aiming for. Most college courses aim to foster student learning in several "domains of learning":

Cognitive: having to do with knowledge and mental skills

Psychomotor: having to do with physical motor skills

Affective: having to do with feelings and attitudes

Interpersonal/Social: having to do with interactions with others and social skills

Obviously, these are broad categories. Each one can be broken down into different levels of skills and knowledge, some simpler and some more complex.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Perhaps the most well-known resource for understanding the layers of the cognitive, psychomotor and affective domains is Benjamin Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956). There, Bloom offered taxonomies for these three domains, in which he attempted to represent the developmental nature of learning. Note: In this seminar, we limit our attention mainly to the cognitive domain, since the vast majority of university-level courses are focused on cognitive development and learning. If you teach courses that are more focused on affective or psychomotor development - e.g., lab courses where handling equipment safely and properly is essential, or health sciences courses where empathy and other affective qualities must be cultivated - you might want to seek out additional resources on these areas.

While there are many different ways of understanding how learning occurs, and there have been critiques of Bloom over the years, Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Development (often referred to simply as "Bloom's Taxonomy") is still widely used and adapted by educators at all levels to create measurable learning objectives for students. Bloom offers a way to think about sequencing learning, which can be applied to everything from specific assignments to curricular structure.

According to Bloom, cognitive development can be organized into different levels, and , "lower-order" (or less complex) thinking skills form the foundation for "higher-order" (or more complex) thinking skills. The relationships between these different levels of skills and knowledge often are represented in this diagram:

Bloom's Taxonomy

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Here, more fundamental concepts and skills form the base of the pyramid, while more advanced concepts and skills form the apex. Ultimately, each level of the pyramid represents a different way of knowing and demonstrating knowledge.

For each level, there may be any number of synonyms, and charts have been developed to highlight verbs that correspond to each. (For instance, see this website or this chart.) In developing learning objectives for your course, using the taxonomy and the related verbs can help you to be sure that your objectives are observable and measurable - an essential feature of learning objectives.

Recent Revisions to Bloom

In the decades since Bloom first introduced his taxonomies, his work has been the source of both inspiration and criticism. Critiques of Bloom tend to focus on evidence that suggests that learning is not strictly linear or sequential as these taxonomies suggest, but is, rather, more recursive in nature. Others point to the fact that his work is the product of a very different cultural moment than the one in which we are designing courses now. Certainly, there may be good reason to interrogate Bloom's assumptions. And many of us question certain aspects of the taxonomy for cognitive development - e.g., does application come before analysis? Is evaluation of a "higher-order" than synthesis? Answers to these questions depend on many factors, particularly disciplinary differences.

In 2000, Anderson and Krathwohl offered a revision of the original taxonomy (link):

Blooms Taxonomy RevisedAnd the result is perhaps more appealing for many of us, for several reasons:

  • It removes the word, knowledge: since all of the cognitive processes listed are versions of knowledge (increasingly sophisticated or expert versions of knowledge we might even say), the revised version seems more accurate.
  • It converts the levels to verbs, which underscores that these levels involve actions, cognitive skills to be demonstrated, rather than states of being.
  • It culminates in creating, moving evaluating down a level. This strikes many disciplinary experts as appropriate. After all, until one can evaluate gaps in existing research, for example, it is difficult to create new knowledge for the field.

As with the original, the so-called "Revised Bloom" often is presented with lists of verbs that correspond to the levels. (See this PDF.)

Certainly, some of the same critiques may be offered of this revised version. And there are other taxonomies and tools for understanding how learning works. In designing learning experiences for students, what matters isn't the particular taxonomy or word choices. What matters is that this type of tool allows us to design courses and assignments more intentionally, with attention to specific, measurable skills and to structuring learning in effective ways (breaking down complex tasks into simpler ones at first, etc.).

What do you want students to know and be able to do?

Identifying Learning Objectives for Your Course

As you begin developing learning objectives for your own courses, you probably won't be able to identify every single thing you could ever hope for your students to know and be able to do. But you should be able to identify some of the key takeaways for your course, the most important knowledge and skills students should leave with. Linda Nilson calls these "ultimate outcomes" (2010); others call them course-level learning objectives.

From there, you should be able to work backward, identifying what students will need to know and be able to do before they can do those more ambitious things. Eventually, you can work all the way back to what Nilson calls "foundational outcomes," or the skills, knowledge, and attitudes students must have at the beginning of the course if they are to successfully achieve the ultimate outcomes. Below is a visual representation of the steps Nilson suggests for developing course objectives:

steps develop learning objectives

Writing Your Own Objectives

As you prepare to draft learning objectives for your own course, there are three key areas you'll want to be aware of:

Content The core concepts, texts, formulae, etc. that are essential for students to learn in your course.

Skills: What you want students to be able to do upon leaving your course. This includes what they should be able to do with the content you'll cover, as well as so-called "cross-cutting skills" - skills that "cut across" disciplines, such as communication skills, reasoning skills, and so on.

Context: Specific contextual factors that may have a bearing on the learning objectives you develop. Depending on student ability level, disciplinary expectations, and a host of other things, certain learning objectives may or may not be appropriate for your course. (See Part 2: Understanding the Teaching Situation for more on contextual factors to be considered for effective course design.)

Finally, as with course goals, learning objectives may not be entirely up to you. As you design your course, be sure to consider your broader curricular context, since there may be departmental expectations about the specific objectives, outcomes, or competencies of your particular course, depending upon how it fits into the larger curriculum.

EXERCISE: Writing Learning Objectives

Earlier in the seminar, you developed a few goals for your course. Go back to the earlier Worksheet: Writing Goals and Objectives. Now that you have a better understanding of how goals and objectives differ from one another, try drafting some learning objectives for your course. This exercise should get you started.

Step 1: Return to the course goals you drafted earlier. Choose one of your main goals for the course. You'll use this goal to guide your development of specific learning objectives.

Step 2: On a separate sheet of paper, answer the following question, writing as many responses as you can think of: What will students need to know and be able to do in order for you to know this goal has been met?

Step 3: Using the responses from Step 2 above, develop 2-3 learning objectives. Consult Bloom's Taxonomy or the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy (and related verbs) to identify the best level and verbs for your desired learning. (Note: if you need to write objectives for the affective, psychomotor, or social domains, feel free to list those, as well.)

Step 4: Record your learning objectives in the Worksheet: Writing Goals and Objectives, if it's helpful to do so.

An Alternative Approach:

Some people find it easier to identify learning objectives than goals. If that's you, try this instead:

Step 1: Brainstorm a big list of all the things you want students to know and be able to do by the time they complete your course.

Step 2: Consider both the things you want them to be able to do with content and other, more cross-cutting skills (e.g., writing effective arguments, using quantitative data effectively, evaluating source credibility, etc.).

Step 3: Using the results of this brainstorming activity, try to identify links between those things. Consider which are simpler and which are more complex; consider which are pre-requisite for others.

Step 4: Select the most complex, challenging skills and use those to write your overall (or "ultimate") learning objectives for the course.

Step 5: Go back to your course goals and make sure there is alignment between your goals and the objectives you want students to achieve upon leaving the course.

Hold onto the material you generate here. It can form the bases of more complete course design work later on.


It can be tempting to ask why you need both goals and learning objectives at all. Certainly, in more skills-heavy courses, where learning objectives are much more obvious and are the whole point of the class, it can seem like the larger, course-level conceptual framing is unnecessary. However, students often crave the larger, more conceptual framing of a course. Without it, they can feel as if they are jumping through hoops, or going through motions, without a clear sense of the purpose behind those things. When students have access to both the conceptual framing and the specific objectives, they are more likely to experience the course in integrated ways that enhance their learning.

Continue to: Part 6: Articulating Course Content

To Learn More About...

Developing learning objectives:

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Outcomes-centered course design. In Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.) (17-32). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Filene, P. (2003). Defining your aims and outcomes. In The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Caroline Press.

Bloom's taxonomy (and revisions to it):

International Centre for Educators' Learning Styles. (2013). Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. Retrieved from

Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. (2013). Bloom's Taxonomy. Retrieved from

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 212-264. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from