In education, learning objectives are brief statements that describe what students will be expected to learn by the end of school year, course, unit, lesson, project, or class period. In many cases, learning objectives are the interim academic goals that teachers establish for students who are working toward meeting more comprehensive learning standards.
Defining learning objective is complicated by the fact that educators use a wide variety of terms for learning objectives, and the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. For example, the terms student learning objective, benchmark, grade-level indicator, learning target, performance indicator, and learning standard—to name just a few of the more common terms—may refer to specific types of learning objectives in specific educational contexts. Educators also create a wide variety of homegrown terms for learning objectives—far too many to catalog here. For these reasons, this entry describes only a few general types and characteristics.
While educators use learning objectives in different ways to achieve a variety of instructional goals, the concept is closely related to learning progressions, or the purposeful sequencing of academic expectations across multiple developmental stages, ages, or grade levels. Learning objectives are a way for teachers to structure, sequence, and plan out learning goals for a specific instructional period, typically for the purpose of moving students toward the achievement of larger, longer-term educational goals such as meeting course learning expectations, performing well on a standardized test, or graduating from high school prepared for college. For these reasons, learning objectives are a central strategy in proficiency-based learning, which refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating understanding of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma (learning objectives that move students progressively toward the achievement of academic standards may be called performance indicators or performance benchmarks, among other terms).
Learning objectives are also increasingly being used in the job-performance evaluations of teachers, and the term student learning objectives is commonly associated with this practice in many states. For a more detailed discussion, including relevant reforms and debates on the topic, see value-added measures and student-growth measures.
Learning objectives are also a way to establish and articulate academic expectations for students so they know precisely what is expected of them. When learning objectives are clearly communicated to students, the reasoning goes, students will be more likely to achieve the presented goals. Conversely, when learning objectives are absent or unclear, students may not know what’s expected of them, which may then lead to confusion, frustration, or other factors that could impede the learning process.
While the terminology, structure, and use of learning objectives can differ significantly from state to state or school to school, the following are a few of the major forms that learning objectives take:
- School-year or grade-level objectives: In this case, learning objectives may be synonymous with learning standards, which are concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. Grade-level learning objectives describe what students should achieve academically by the end of a particular grade level or grade span (terms such as grade-level indicators or grade-level benchmarks may be used in reference to these learning objectives or standards).
- Course or program objectives: Teachers may also determine learning objectives for courses or other academic programs, such as summer-school sessions or vacation-break programs. In this case, the objectives may be the same academic goals described in learning standards (in the case of a full-year course, for example), or they may describe interim goals (for courses that are shorter in duration).
- Unit or project objectives: Teachers may determine learning objectives for instructional units, which typically comprise a series of lessons focused on a specific topic or common theme, such as an historical period, for example. In the case of project-based learning—an instructional approach that utilizes multifaceted projects as a central organizing strategy for educating students—teachers may determine learning objectives for the end of long-term project rather than a unit.
- Lesson or class-period objectives: Teachers may also articulate learning objectives for specific lessons that compose a unit, project, or course, or they may determine learning objectives for each day they instruct students (in this case, the term learning target is often used). For example, teachers may write a set of daily learning objectives on the blackboard, or post them to an online course-management system, so that students know what the learning expectations are for a particular class period. In this case, learning objectives move students progressively toward meeting more comprehensive learning goals for a unit or course.
In practice, teachers will commonly express learning objectives in different ways to achieve different instructional goals, or to encourage students to think about the learning process is a specific way. While the minutia and nuances of pedagogical strategy are beyond the scope of this resource, the following are a few common ways that learning objectives may be framed or expressed by teachers:
- Descriptive statements: Learning objectives may be expressed as brief statements describing what students should know or be able to do by the end of a defined instructional period. For example: Explain how the Constitution establishes the separation of powers among the three branches of the United States government—legislative, executive, and judicial—and articulate the primary powers held by each branch. State learning standards, which may comprise a variety of learning objectives, are commonly expressed as descriptive statements.
- “I can” statements: Teachers may choose to express learning objectives as “I can” statements as a way to frame the objectives from a student standpoint. The basic idea is that “I can” statements encourage students to identify with the learning goals, visualize themselves achieving the goals, or experience a greater sense of personal accomplishment when the learning objectives are achieved. For example: I can explain how the Constitution establishes the separation of powers among the three branches of the United States government—legislative, executive, and judicial—and I can articulate the primary powers held by each branch.
- “Students will be able to” statements: “Students will be able to” statements are another commonly used format for learning objectives, and the abbreviation SWBAT may be used in place of the full phrase. For example: SWBAT explain how the Constitution establishes the separation of powers among the three branches of the United States government—legislative, executive, and judicial—and articulate the primary powers held by each branch.