Goals, Objectives, and Learning Outcomes
Every syllabus should have three main components: goals, objectives, and learning outcomes. We may even use these words in our assignments and activities. These three terms often accompany one another, but what do they mean and how do they differ? We can think of these as encircling categories. GOALS are the largest category, usually relating to the larger aims such as critical thinking, transfer of content, or creativity. We lay out OBJECTIVES within these GOALS as a map of the actions we will need to achieve those goals, such as specific instruction covered, case studies analyzed, and texts discussed. If OBJECTIVES are what an instructor puts into the course and plans for achieving the course goals, the LEARNING OUTCOMES are what learners actually produce. They explain what students will be able to do because of the instruction, analysis, or discussion. Instructors assess student learning through these outcomes, therefore learning outcomes must be measurable and observable. In short, GOALS dictate the general aims of a course, project, or activity; OBJECTIVES lay out the plan for how these GOALS will be met or what the instructor will provide, and the LEARNING OUTCOMES exhibit what the learners actually do as a result of the activity. OBJECTIVES are what is intended while LEARNING OUTCOMES are what is actually achieved (UConn). Because of the sequential nature of these activities, usually a syllabus or project description will first describe the goals, and then provide the objectives and the learning outcomes. These examples of goals, objectives, and learning outcomes follow this pattern, providing examples from multiple disciplines such as Geology, English, and Engineering. Notice that each column is progressively more concrete. The more specifically action-based the learning outcome, the more measurable and feasible it is for students, faculty, and administrators. The wording of your learning outcomes matter. Articulate what students will be able to do using action verbs, the content involved, and the context for using the content. We can think of this in three categories: Action Word, Learning Statement, and Criterion. Since learning outcomes are measurable and observable, the actions words used must be measurable and observable. Words like learn, know, and understand are not observable actions. Upon encountering these words, ask yourself, “What does learning look like? How will I know what students know? How will they show their understanding?” Visualizing the action should lead you to the action words that will produce a measurable, observable learning outcome. Bloom has developed a list of actions that express the learning level associated with outcomes. Lower-level learning outcomes might call on students to define and state or explain and modify while higher level outcomes require students to compare, justify, or design. This is another reason why action words are important to learning outcomes: with unobservable words like learn and know, it isn’t clear what level of learning is expected. Returning to our examples, any of the original, poorly written outcomes could be defined in terms of novice or expert learning. The action words help distinguish the difference. As you write and review new activity descriptions or syllabus, consider whether the difference between an objective and learning outcome is clear to you and to students. Distinguishing between the two not only makes clear what the activity will cover, but what students stand to gain from taking part in the activity.