Developing Learning Objectives

Although many teachers create courses without ever articulating exactly what they want students to take away from the experience (beyond simply “learning the content”), most well designed courses begin with specific goals and student-learning objectives. Learning objectives communicate instructional expectations to students and direct the design of your teaching. When you decide what you want students to take away from the course prior to planning the teaching, classroom activities, and assessments of learning, you can be more focused and deliberate in designing all course content to ensure they align with achievement of those goals and objectives; this style of course design is sometimes referred to as “backward design.”

What are goals and objectives?

Goals and objectives are similar in that they describe the intended purposes and expected results of teaching activities and establish the foundation for assessment.

Goals are statements about general aims or purposes of education that are broad, long-range intended outcomes and concepts; goals are often linked to student achievements by the end of a curriculum or sequence of courses. Unlike objectives, goals are often difficult to directly measure or observe.

Objectives are brief, clear statements that describe the desired learning outcomes of instruction; objectives define the specific knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes students should possess and exhibit by the end of the learning experience; objectives should be more specific than goals but should align with meeting the broader goals. Because the objectives are directed at the student’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, sometimes these statements are called behavioral objectives. Others may refer to them as learning, instructional, or educational objectives.

How do you create effective learning objectives?

Alignment with the mission and goals of the program and course

Before designing learning objectives, refer to the mission and goals of the program to guide you. If your course is formally approved by the General Education Oversight Committee (GEOC) to meet specific general education competency requirements, begin by familiarizing yourself with the outcomes specified for the course content area. This information is available on the GEOC website. If your course is approved by another committee or program, begin by familiarizing yourself with the goals and outcomes of that program.

Construction of the parts of the objective

A well-constructed learning objective contains four parts, each of which mean nothing when viewed separately but when combined articulates the learning objective. Once developed the objective will define the conditions under which the behavior is performed, a verb that defines the behavior, and the criteria under which and/or degree to which a student must perform the behavior.

The key to developing objectives is to focus on the ABCD (audience, behavior, condition, and degree) model:

Audience: Who is the target audience? The most common audiences identified in learning objectives are students, learners, participants, or attendees.

Behavior: What is the real work to be accomplished by the student?

This is an action verb that connotes an observable and measurable behaviors. The choice of verb for the objective is critical. Despite their frequent use in objectives, terms such as know, understand, enjoy, and appreciate do not meet the requirement of observable and measurable and therefore should not be used in learning objectives. In contrast, verbs such as write, compare, contrast, build, identify, and recite are all measurable and observable. Please refer to our other learning objective resources to assist with defining the level of learning and domain of your verb, as these are critical in aligning the objective with how you teach and how you assess.

Condition: What are the conditions/constraints within which the audience will be expected to perform these tasks?

This is a statement that describes the exact conditions under which the defined behavior is to be performed. The conditions statement should include information about what tools, aids, or assistance will be provided or denied.

Degree: How will the behavior need to be performed?

This is a statement that specifies how well the student must perform the behavior, such as the degree of accuracy or the quantity or proportion of correct responses. For some learning objectives, this criterion will not be listed, rather it is implied.

Example SLO image


  • Keep language concise and student friendly. Objectives should be short, focused, and to the point with only the most important descriptive details and minimal jargon.
  • Write from the student’s perspective. Faculty often mistakenly write objectives from the teaching perspective, but concentration needs to be on what studentslearn, not what you will teach
  • Ensure all objectives are observable and measurable. Ask yourself how you would observe and measure the verb that you use in your objective. If you are unable to identify how to observe and measure it, you might need a different verb.
  • Seek out support if you need it. CETL’s teaching enhancement team and instructional design are available to assist in writing objectives.

Need a quick tip sheet on writing learning objectives? Here it is!

Additional resources:

Robert F. Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives. ISBN 978-1879618039

Linda B. Nilson’s Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. ISBN 978-1119096320

Enjoy this quick video on backward design to assist in aligning objectives with assessments and activities.