Writing Learning Goals

Created by Laura Schmidli and Molly Harris.

Having learning goals, whether they be program outcomes, course outcomes, or learning objectives for a specific activity, helps make learning clearer to everyone involved.

Clear learning goals can:

  • Communicate connections between course content, like readings, lectures, homework, and exams.
  • Help students better understand how to do well on assessments. 
  • Build trust between students and instructors through transparency.
  • Aid students in managing their own learning processes. 
  • Help a teaching team align course content between sections and over time.
  • Provide a solid foundation for future content revisions and redesigns. 

Program & Course Outcomes

In the College of Letters & Science, academic departments and programs have clearly specified Program Outcomes. In addition, many courses have specific Course Outcomes. These Program and Course Outcomes are part of the course and program approval processes, and are often created and revised over time by a skilled team of instructors. Program Outcomes are available publicly through The Guide.

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See an Example of Program Outcomes

The B.A. in African Cultural Studies specifies Program Outcomes in The Guide. For example, “Develop or improve speaking, listening, writing, reading skills in an African language, and integrate these skills to communicate effectively” is a primary Program Outcome, as shown below.

Screenshot of the link above showing program outcomes for the B.A. in African Cultural Studies

See an Example of Course Outcomes

In many programs or departments, students can view Course Outcomes in the course syllabus, from the department website, or when registering for classes using the Course Search & Enroll tool if an instructor has entered their Course Outcomes in “Instructor Provided Content”. (See instructions on the Office of the Registrar’s Instructor Provided Content article.) For example, for Communication Arts 260 in “Instructor Provided Content” students can see Course Outcomes including, “Analyze real life communication concerns, questions, and problems using insights from scholarly communication research” as shown below.

Screenshot showing Course Outcomes for Communication Arts 260 in Instructor Provided Content

For guidance on writing and specifying Program and Course Outcomes, please see Writing Student Learning Outcomes from the Provost’s Office. Remember that these outcomes can form an important foundation for writing learning goals for specific units or activities in your course. Goals for a smaller chunk of course content should align with a larger-scale course outcome. In turn, course outcomes will often align with your program’s outcomes. The number and granularity of course and unit-level or activity-level goals can vary based on discipline. 

Learning Objectives for Units or Activities

When writing (or revising) learning objectives or goals for a specific unit or activity within your course, you will need to consider your Course Outcomes, your course content, and any activities you already use or want to use. Your end goal in writing clear learning objectives is to specify what you want students to know, value, or be able to do at the end of a unit or activity. By necessity, these objectives are more concrete and specific than, yet related to, your course-level outcomes. The number and granularity of outcomes will vary based on your discipline and specific unit or activity.

Qualities of Clear Learning Objectives:

  • Clearly written in plain, simple language that instructors and students understand
  • Use action verbs to describe an observable skill, end state, or evidence of knowledge or understanding
  • Relevant and significant to students
  • Fit the scope of the course, unit, or activity

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See Example Learning Objectives

The following learning objectives are from a variety of disciplines, and are written at a variety of levels of difficulty. The examples below are organized from simpler to more complex objectives.

  • Recognize key components of surrealism when examining works of art.
  • Summarize the relationship between variation and correlation.
  • Show interest in the human experience of climate change across regions of the world.
  • Demonstrate use of the chain rule when differentiating composite functions.
  • Compare the use of preterite and subjunctive forms for writing in the past tense.
  • Value self-reflection as a tool to improve learning and studying over time.
  • Critique the effectiveness of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” campaign in the United States.
  • Design a research model to study the effectiveness of MDMA in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain
Image from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, licensed CC-BY

Bloom’s Taxonomy was originally published in 1956 as Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and has been widely used and revised since then. It provides a structure for writing learning objectives based on actions and organizes these actions in a hierarchy of complexity. Bloom’s Taxonomy contains three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Referencing Bloom’s when you write or revise learning objectives helps ensure that they are actionable, that they fit the scope of your course, and that they are attainable for students. 

Please review the diagram of the cognitive domain, and make your own copy of our Bloom’s Taxonomy handout, which includes the cognitive and affective domains. You may find that both domains can apply to your course material, though the cognitive domain is usually the best fit.

Using Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning

Fink Significant Learning has six categories that overlap: Foundational Knowledge, Application, Integration, Human Dimension, Caring, and Learning How to Learn.
Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning

Dr. L. Dee Fink expanded on Bloom’s work in 2003 to add social and emotional contexts when defining learning. According to Fink, for learning to be significant the learner must experience lasting change that is meaningful for their future. With this in mind, Fink identified six categories that overlap and intersect. Unlike Bloom’s taxonomy, these categories are interrelated and do not uniformly increase in complexity or depth. Many or all of these categories may be present in a course, and they may enhance each other. These categories can provide a new way of conceptualizing learning objectives, and may be more appealing and valuable in certain disciplines.

Please review the diagram, and make your own copy of our Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning handout.

 

Choosing activities or assessments as evidence of learning

Once you’ve written or revised your learning objectives using the taxonomies suggested above, the verbs you have chosen can suggest activities or assessments that will provide you and students with evidence of learning. Ideally, all assessments and activities in your course will connect to one or more of your learning goals for students. Some activities and assessments may be used to document a student’s learning through grades, and others may help students and instructors understand the learning process. In all cases, a student’s completion of these assessments and activities provides both the instructor and the student with evidence of learning.

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Bloom’s Taxonomy Example Activities and Assessments

Bloom’s Taxonomy Level Example Student Activities & Assessments
Remember
  • Written or oral questions that ask students to define, label, or list
  • Diagrams or outlines that students complete
Understand
  • Written or oral questions that ask students to describe, explain, summarize, identify, or select
  • Summary reports or presentations
Apply
  • Written or oral questions that ask students to apply, solve, demonstrate, or employ
  • Problem sets
  • Online or in-person discussions where students present examples of an idea or phenomenon
  • Writing assignments where students provide advice
Analyze
  • Written or oral questions that ask students to analyze, compare, examine, distinguish between, or test
  • Lab reports based on analyzing data and observations
  • Writing assignments where students analyze case studies, experiences, or readings
Evaluate
  • Written or oral questions that ask students to evaluate, argue, assess, defend, judge, predict, rate, or support an argument
  • Writing assignments where students evaluate complex positions or policies, or make future predictions
Create
  • Written or oral questions that ask students to develop, plan, propose, design, create, or assemble
  • Portfolio assignments where students collect a body of work
  • Presentations, exhibits, or art installations
  • Projects where students design or build a model

Fink’s Taxonomy Example Activities and Assessments

Fink’s Taxonomy Category Example Student Activities
Foundational Knowledge
  • Questions that ask students to define, label, list, describe, explain, summarize, identify, or select
  • Summary reports or presentations 
  • Diagrams or outlines that students complete 
Application
  • Questions that ask students to apply, solve, demonstrate, or employ
  • Problem sets
  • Discussions where students present examples of an idea or phenomenon
  • Writing assignments where students provide advice
Integration
  • Questions that ask students to analyze, compare, examine, distinguish between, test, evaluate, argue, assess, defend, judge, predict, or support an argument
  • Lab reports based on analyzing data and observations
  • Writing assignments that analyze case studies, experiences, readings, etc.
  • Writing assignments that evaluate complex positions or policies, or make future predictions
Human Dimension
  • Questions that ask students to take the perspective of a hypothetical person
  • Discussions where students compare viewpoints, relate a topic to a current event, or connect a topic to their lives
  • Writing assignments where students advocate for a specific course of action or idea
  • Group projects, presentations, exhibits, or art installations where students collaborate to reach a goal
Caring
  • Self-reflective writing assignments where students identify their values
  • Discussions where students share their interests, values, or feelings about a topic
  • Projects where students commit to demonstrate values in the future
  • Portfolio assignments where students collect a body of work to demonstrate their development of values or beliefs
Learning How to Learn
  • Self-assessments or exam wrappers where students consider their own learning process
  • Reflective assignments where students evaluate their past performance and/or plan for future tasks
  • Discussions or writing assignments where students identify valuable qualities or resources to support their studies
  • Portfolio assignments where students collect a body of work to demonstrate their learning skill or process development

Reflecting on and Revising Learning Objectives

While Program and Course Outcomes tend to be more stable, ideally your unit objectives and activities evolve over time. Taking time to reflect and revise before, during, and after you implement changes will help you be more intentional with future changes.

Before your course begins:

  • Revisit our qualities of clear learning objectives. Do your objectives meet these?
  • Make sure your learning objectives and activities connect back to your larger Course Outcomes.
  • Consider how your learning objectives and activities match the content of your course. Will students be prepared to complete your activities and reach your objectives based on the content they read and watch? Are you assigning any content that doesn’t relate to a learning objective or activity?
  • Gather feedback from your teaching team, colleagues within your discipline, or colleagues beyond your discipline. Are your learning objectives easy to understand?

During your course:

  • Use a reflection journal or make notes to record how your objectives and activities worked from your perspective.
  • Collect feedback from your students on how activities worked from their perspective. For activities that happen early in the semester, consider using a mid-semester feedback survey.

After your course:

  • Review your own reflections and feedback from your students to identify opportunities for improvement.

Connect with Help

To learn more, brainstorm for your course, or get help implementing your ideas, please schedule a consultation. We are happy to help you adapt any of our resources for use with your course.

References & Further Reading

Published July 2022, Revised October 2022

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How to Cite and Re-Use this Guide

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. This means that you are welcome to adopt and adapt content, but we ask that you provide attribution to the L&S Instructional Design Collaborative and do not use the material for commercial purposes.

Example attribution: From Writing Learning Goals by the L&S Instructional Design Collaborative, licensed under the BY-NC 4.0 license.

Example APA citation: Schmidli, L. & Harris, M. (July 2022). Writing Learning Goals. L&S Instructional Design Collaborative. https://idc.ls.wisc.edu/guides/writing-learning-goals/