Learning Objectives


Dr. Michael Ryan, Assistant Dean for Clinical Medical Education and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University presents the case for writing meaningful learning objectives and shares a template for doing so.

Why do I need to create learning objectives?

Objectives provide a roadmap for both the students and the instructor. Your specific, observable, and measurable objectives should link your content to an assessment strategy, which then will inform your decision about the type of teaching strategy you use.

How will learning objectives help my teaching?

Good objectives not only help you clarify what key concepts your students need to take away from your session, but they also indicate how you will assess and teach those concepts. This saves time later, and it is similar to planning a road trip before you get in the car.

How do good objectives help my students learn?

Objectives provide a mental model for your students, guiding them through your content. They help students by:

  • emphasizing major points and reducing non-essential material, which simplifies note-taking
  • organizing content material
  • setting clear expectations of the students to help them study important information more efficiently,
  • allowing them to anticipate test items and the faculty’s expectations for learning (when examination items mirror objectives)

How do I start?

The most important question to ask yourself is, “What do I want my learners to be able to do or to know by the end of the learning activity?”  With useful tools and assistance from others, objectives become much easier to write. You can attend workshops, ask for feedback from colleagues, consult with faculty development, and use the resources in this module.

How much time does it take to create them?

It depends. If you have clarity about what you want the students to know and do, writing objectives takes less time. Similarly, revising objectives may take less time than starting from scratch; however, making revisions can also be more difficult when trying to change what has been done in the past.

Can I use learning objectives from other courses I teach?

Sometimes, as long as they are modified to fit the audience and content for which you will be using them. Keep in mind they should be specific, observable and measurable, and they should align with your teaching and assessment strategy.

How will Bloom's taxonomy help me prepare my learning objectives?

It can give you structure when describing what you want your students to be able to do. The taxonomy provides a way to scaffold or build the learning to ensure student success. It can also provide you with a variety of active verbs to help you hone in on the specific knowledge, skills or attitudes you want students to be able to demonstrate.

How do I create and align my assessments with learning objectives?

Consider what you want the student to actually do after the session. You want to assure that your assessments accurately measure this. For example, if you want students to be able to perform an eye exam on a patient, a multiple choice test would not be a meaningful way to measure success with this. However, if you want the student to list the steps of an eye exam, a multiple choice exam may suffice.

How many learning objectives should I have?

On average, 2-3 for a 50 minute session is appropriate.

Are learning objectives different for lecture-based classes than those for active-learning based classes?

No. What is different is the “how” of arriving at the learning outcome.

Is an objective the same as a goal?

No. A goal is broader than an objective. If the goal of the VCU SOM MD program is to graduate excellent physicians, then one objective for the program is to graduate physicians who can “construct appropriate assessments, differential diagnoses, and treatment plans.” Achieving the program’s objectives leads to fulfilling the goal of developing excellent physicians.

Learning Objective

A learning objective is a descriptive sentence for a session or program, written for faculty and students that details the specific, observable, and measurable learning outcomes, type of knowledge, and/or content to be gained. Objectives should be scaffolded, i.e. connected in a sequential and guiding manner. So, a Program Objective (higher level) breaks down into Course Objectives. Course objectives break down into Lesson Objectives (lower level).

Program Objective

A program objective overarches the program or section of the curriculum. These are normally set in the future tense and should be both a higher level type of learning and a higher level verb from Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Example

For the SOM MD program: Students who graduate from VCU School of Medicine will be able to construct appropriate assessments, differential diagnoses, and treatment plans for patients across the spectrum of medical presentations. Other examples are located in the School of Medicine Objectives.

Course Objective

A course objective supports a program objective, but focuses on one course within the program. These are more specific than program objectives, but less specific than Lesson objectives.

Example

For the Glands & Guts course in the revised SOM MD Curriculum, one course objective is “to provide students with knowledge of normal endocrine physiology which will give them the skills to recognize and predict common endocrine disorders.” Glands & Guts is then broken down into the three sub-courses of GI & Metabolism, Endocrine, and Reproduction. For the Endocrine sub-course, one course objective is “to interpret diagnostic tests used in the evaluation of endocrine disorders.” You can see how this supports the Program Objective example above.

Lesson Objective

This particular type of learning objective outlines what the student should be able to do after completing a specific session within a course. Lesson Objectives should include how the student will know if he or she learned successfully. It should should reflect the type of learning outcome that the faculty desires. It is important to keep the concept of Program and Course Objectives in mind because Lesson Objectives will link back to them and provide the map for how the Program Objectives will be accomplished.

Example

By the end of the Vasopressin session in the Endocrine course, the student should be able to list the features necessary for a diagnosis of SIADH.

Learning Outcomes

This refers to the types of knowledge that the student should gain from the lesson. Identifying the learning outcome can help when writing lesson objectives. Outcomes can be classified into categories depending on the type of knowledge, skills, or attitudes that you want the learner to accomplish:

  • Acquiring New Knowledge (knowing facts)
  • Enhancing Cognitive Skills (knowing how)
  • Developing Motor Skills (doing)
  • Strengthening Problem Solving Ability (cognitive strategies/using facts)
  • Changing Beliefs and Attitudes (rationale/connecting facts)

It is important to recognize that some of these categories build upon the others; a student may need to gain new knowledge before they can solve problems that require that knowledge.

Example

Listing the features necessary for a diagnosis of SIADH indicated the outcome of acquiring new knowledge. Applying that knowledge to create a differential diagnosis would be a higher level outcome and may be an objective for a later session.

Components of an Objective

Once you have identified the learning outcome and lesson content, you are ready to begin writing your objective. Robert Mager holds that objectives require four components to reach the needed level of specificity. These components are Audience, Behavior, Condition, and Degree (ABCD method). An objective always begins with a stem that says (in either future tense):

By the end of this course, the learner will be able to ACTIVE VERB CHOICE…

Example

From the Guts & Glands course in the revised medical curriculum:

By the end of this course, the second year medical student will be able to list the features necessary for a diagnosis of SIADH after attending a lecture on Vasopressin by accurately reproducing the list from memory.
  • Audience (Who) – The second year medical student taking Guts & Glands
  • Behavior (Will do what) – will list the features necessary for a diagnosis of SIADH
  • Condition (Associated factors) – after attending a lecture on Vasopressin
  • Degree (Level of achievement) – by accurately reproducing the list from memory.

Other methods for writing objectives exist. David Kern’s book on medical education recommends the formula: Who, Will do, How much, Of what, By when?

Example

An example from the VCU MD program is:

By the end of the clerkship, each third-year medical student will be able to diagnose the conditions of hypertension, diabetes, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hyperlipidemia, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, and asymptomatic HIV infection as measured by acceptable scores on interim tests and the final exam.
  • Who – Each third-year medical student
  • Will do – will be able to diagnose
  • How much – as measured by acceptable scores on interim tests and the final exam
  • Of what – the conditions of hypertension, diabetes, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hyperlipidemia, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, and asymptomatic HIV infection
  • By when – by the end of their internal medicine ambulatory clerkship.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

This hierarchical list of cognitive verbs has divisions based on the desired learning outcome, and it can help when writing the “Behavior” or “Will do” section of a specific, observable and measurable objective. The Taxonomy includes 6 levels of cognition that represent increasing complexity: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.

These can be further grouped into three escalating levels of understanding:

  1. Recall – Knowledge and Comprehension,
  2. Interpretation – Application and Analysis, and
  3. Problem-Solving – Synthesis and Evaluation. Some theories also include a final level of Creation. Additionally, the overlay between this hierarchy and the Learning Outcome categories is readily apparent.

Tough Verbs

action verbs that give a picture of what the learner will be able to do. Tough Verbs are used primarily in the Behavior or “Will do” portion of the objective.

Example

“List” is a tough verb because it is a specific type of action, an observable behavior, and has a measurable end product.

“Understand” or “Know” are not tough verbs. If I started with the objective, “Know Mager’s 4 components of a good objective,” then I could improve this objective by using the word “List” instead of “Know.”

Scaffolding

connecting objectives and activities in a sequential and guiding manner. As we saw in the Learning Outcomes example, this term references the need to build knowledge in a sequential way.

Example

A student would need to be able to name and describe the most common disorders of the shoulder before he or she can make treatment recommendations.

A student would need to be able to list the features necessary for a diagnosis of SIADH before he or she can apply that knowledge to create a differential diagnosis.

Alignment

connecting the content you are teaching with how you are teaching it and assessing it. Faculty should be sure to align objectives with assessment and teaching strategy to ensure they are helping students succeed.

Example

If you want students to be able to perform an eye exam on a patient, a multiple choice exam would not be a meaningful way to measure success with this behavior. However, if you want the student to list the steps of an eye exam, a multiple choice exam may suffice.

You want students to be able to list the features necessary for a diagnosis. In a later session they will practice applying that knowledge. In this case, an ungraded self-assessment question may be best to ensure they can produce the list. You might then have a graded exam question asking them to apply that knowledge, in order to grade them on the higher level learning outcome of Problem Solving.