Identifying Clear Learning Objectives

Identifying learning objectives can seem deceptively simple. As such, educators and instructional designers can often rush the process without thoroughly analyzing whether they have pinpointed the right learning objectives. I like to think of the learning objectives as the course's compass. Whether I am designing or teaching a class, I must have clear learning objectives to navigate the course successfully.

Perhaps the most common mistake is making an objective too broad. I will never forget the first time I taught an Introduction to Adobe Photoshop class, and the learning objective was "Students will know how to use Adobe Photoshop." What does that mean exactly? At what point does a learner cross the threshold into "knowing how to use" a program as expansive as Photoshop? What evidence will I see from the learner to demonstrate this "knowing?" As someone who has used Photoshop for over 15 years, I have no idea.

This example provides an excellent teaching tool for identifying clear learning objectives. The core problem here is that there is no way to consistently and definitively measure such an ambiguous objective because it lacks scope, measurement, and student action.


Precisely what will students learn about the course topic? Most topics are too extensive to be pinned down to one singular objective. In our Photoshop example, surely the student won't learn everything there is to know about the program in one semester. "Knowing how to use Photoshop" is too broad in scope to be meaningful. The scope is unclear, which is a problem for the instructor and the students alike. In the Introduction to Photoshop course, students learn the basic functionality of all tools in the tool panel. This is closer but sounds more like a course description than a learning objective. Let's keep going...


What measurable thing can students do as a result of taking the class? You can only measure what you can see. We can't see what someone knows, but we can see whether or not they write or speak fluently about the topic at hand. In a Photoshop class, we can see a student use multiple selection tools, a key skill one must learn in Photoshop. We are getting even closer, but we need to be clearer about the student's action. Almost there...

Student Action

A learning objective should contain active verbs that are easy to measure objectively. In the Photoshop example, "know" is far too passive to measure objectively. An active verb helps the instructor and the student know what concrete action will demonstrate learning. There are a million ways that a student could show that they "know how to use Photoshop," which means that the action is unclear.

Here is a clear objective that incorporates scope, measurement, and student action: "Students will be able to demonstrate their ability to use a variety of selection tools to make clean precise image selections." This specific student action is measurable and has a clear scope. Hooray! Finally, we need to repeat this process to identify the additional learning objectives for the course.

Learning objectives are crucial for outlining the journey ahead for both the instructor and the students. It tells our students why the information we are teaching them is important by specifying what they will be able to do with that information. It is essential to put the time and effort into charting the destination for the journey before you set sail. Bon voyage, everyone!

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