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Academic Coaching & Writing

III. Articulating Clear Learning Objectives for Student Learning

Mar 02, 2018 by Caroline Eisner

In the last blog I wrote about looking at your teaching in a scholarly way, asking questions about how and why what you do impacts your students' learning. This week, for those of you new to SoTL work, I will discuss why your student learning objectives are a good place to begin your research.

Why Do You Need Student Learning Objectives?

In order to make strong connections between how you teach and how (or if) your students are learning, you need learning objectives for your students to meet. Learning objectives identify clearly what learning should happen and allow you to measure and assess (these words are often used interchangeably) how well your students are learning. Importantly, these assessments also allow you to identify what is and is not working for your students. For example, if more than 50% of your students answer a test question incorrectly, you should ask yourself if you taught the material well and/or if the question is a good one to test their understanding.

What Makes a Learning Objective Effective and Measurable?

A curriculum committee already may have set the learning objectives for your course. Or, you may have the opportunity to write your own. In either case, effective learning objectives are clear and concrete and use action verbs to describe levels of learning that speak specifically to skills and outcomes that you can observe and measure. Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956) provides these verbs, as do many of the subsequent taxonomies that others developed based on Bloom. The verbs cover six levels of learning and increase in complexity. The six levels are: knowing, comprehending, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating.

If you are writing your own learning objectives, be sure to use verbs that allow you to measure the increase in cognitive complexity as students learn the course material. A learning objective that states, “The student will be able to write a paper about NAFTA,” does not provide much to measure except for the fact that a student wrote a paper, and it was about NAFTA. Therefore, a better objective might be: “The student will be able to write an essay evaluating NAFTA against other regional alternatives to multilateralism.” Or, after a chemistry course unit explores the genre of scientific writing, a clear, specific learning objective might be: “The student will be able to write laboratory reports according to the standards of professional scientific writing and the American Chemical Society (ACS) formatting guidelines." What is important in these examples is that both the demonstration of the learning (not just any writing, but persuasive writing and scientific writing) and the level of understanding of the content are clear.

Moving through Bloom's Taxonomy, I provide below examples of measurable learning objectives that increase in complexity. Pay attention to how the objectives increase from simply knowing facts and concepts to the higher-level cognitive skills of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating new information.


In an English course: The student will be able to identify Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, based on form, meter, and rhyme scheme.

In a chemistry course: The student will be able to identify periodic trends in properties of elements in the periodic table.


In a history course: The student will be able to explain how periodization and chronology help historians make sense of world events.

In a physiology course: The student will be able to explain the physiological functions of body systems.


In a political science course: The student will be able to use the political and economic landscapes in Ludwig von Mises's Socialism (1922) to critique the constitution of a new country.

In an environmental studies course: The student will be able to predict human-environment interactions under specified social and/or environmental conditions.


In a comparative literature course: The student will be able to compare literary forms in the context of major developments in 20th-century European literary history.

In a psychology course: The student will be able to interpret the behavior of a national leader using three major psychological theories.


In a sociology course: The student will be able to draw on key constructs from current sociological theories to propose a platform for a peace movement in a war-torn country.

In an engineering course: The student will be able to design a functional U.S. government building that adheres to the principles of energy conservation adopted by the European Union.


In a literacy education course: The student will be able to write a policy paper comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the three reading theories (Gray's, Psycholinguistic, and Interactive).

In a science course: The student will be able to assess the credibility of sources in four academic papers, two published in peer-reviewed journals and two published in open access journals.

It's important to remember, that even the best-conceived student learning objectives are only as strong as the opportunities you provide your students to practice and test out what they have learned and the assessments you create to measure what and how well your students are learning.

In the next blog, I will discuss the assessments that measure your students' learning. Until then, think about your student learning objectives and consider what a student would need to demonstrate to show that he or she has mastered the learning objective. Once you know this, you can create the activities for students to learn the objectives and the assessments that showcase their learning. These assessments are vital because they will provide the data to answer your SoTL research question.


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