Well-written course learning objectives are important. They need to clearly convey what comprises the expected learning that will take place as a result of taking the course. These are not a list of topics, but rather a comprehensive list of demonstrable knowledge and skills. Ideally, the delineation of learning objectives should be the first step in course design and the content of assigned exercises (homework, papers, and exams) should be related to, and guided by the specific course learning objectives.
A great deal has been published about how to write good learning objectives. Below we give some of the main points:
- Course learning objectives should describe the core knowledge and skills that the student should derive from the course
- Readings, lectures, discussions, assignments and exams should be consistent with the course learning objectives
- Learning objectives should be written so as to follow the clause, “At the end of this course, the student will be (should be) able to…”
- Rather than use verbs like “know” or “understand” (e.g., “…the student will be able to understand…”), learning objectives should be written using verbs that signify an observable behavior (e.g., “…the student will be able to define…”) Below is a representative list of these kinds of “behavioral” verbs.
- Although there is no minimum or maximum number of course learning objectives, our experience is that instructors are usually able to describe the learning expectations of their courses in 10 to 20 learning objectives.
EXAMPLES OF POORLY AND PROPERLY WRITTEN LEARNING OBJECTIVES
Know how to use t-tests and chi-square tests in data analysis
Describe the assumptions underlying t-tests and chi-square tests and use these tests to statistically compare two samples
Understand how to measure the association between a given risk factor and a disease
Define and calculate measures of association between a given risk factor and a disease
Basic strategies for assessing environmental health hazards
List, describe, and compare the advantages and disadvantages of the basic strategies for assessing environmental health hazards
Know about Medicare and Medicaid
Compare and contrast Medicare and Medicaid with respect to political history, governmental roles, client eligibility, financing, benefits, and cost-sharing
The following is quoted from the "Writing Learning Objectives", a publication of the American College Of Occupational and Environmental Medicine:
How Should Behavioral Learning Objectives Be Written?
Start with the phrase: “At the conclusion of this activity, participants should be able to:” and then state the things participants will be able to do. Be sure to use specific action verbs (behavioral terms) in these statements -- verbs such as “identify,” “cite,” “describe,” or “assess.” A list of the verbs is provided at below. If you follow this simple format and keep the list of verbs by your side, it is almost impossible to write a bad set of objectives!
Verbs such as “know” and “understand” are vague. Avoid these words and use action verbs from the list provided. “Understanding” can have a myriad of meanings and it can be difficult to evaluate whether a learner “understands” a concept. However, a learning objective that states that a physician “will be able to cite the risk factors for breast cancer” can be evaluated consistently by both the CME Committee and the participants as to whether it has been achieved.
Often meeting announcements list teaching objectives rather than learning objectives. Examples: “To acquaint the clinician with the key clinical features necessary for the diagnosis of common rheumatic diseases.” “To update, reinforce, and provide new information regarding the etiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of herniated thoracic disc.” These objectives focus on what the instructor plans to do, rather than what the learner outcome will be.
Announcements sometimes give objectives which are just a list of topics. Examples: “1. Principles of laser mechanics; 2. Laser uses in the cardiovascular system; 3. Efficacy of lasers in cardiovascular disease.” This focuses on what the instructor will do rather on what the learner will achieve.