Course Learning Objectives
The keystone of course design is the articulation of course learning objectives and their alignment with extended course activities and assessments of student learning.
This relationship of objectives, activities and assessments are often visualized as a triangle.
Course Objectives and Course Outcomes
While some programs at Cal Poly distinguish between learning objectives and learning outcomes, this distinction is not universally recognized on campus. For our purposes, we use learning objectives to include both objectives and outcomes.
What makes a good Course Learning Objective?
Course Learning Objectives (CLOs) are clear, concise statements of what learners will be able to perform at the conclusion of instructional activities. Typically a 3-4 unit course will have between 5-12 CLOs. Each CLO must be stated in terms of a specific, measurable outcome and should be student-focused and action-oriented. While it is advisable to have a range of lower- and higher-order thinking objectives, upper-level courses (300 and 400) should include more higher-order thinking objectives.
Writing Good Learning Objectives
One method for ensuring that the outcome is student-focused and action-oriented is to phrase a CLO in a way that completes the following statement with a strong relevant verb and object: “By the end of the course, my students should be able to…”
Sample CLOs from Linda Suskie’s Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and from Cal Poly courses:
- Apply economic principles to everyday life.
- Explain the impact of the Korean War on U.S.-East Asian relations today.
- Identify an audit problem in a financial statement, and recommend ways to address it.
- Theorize what is likely to happen when two chemicals are combined, and justify the theory.
- Design a community service project.
- Write a poem that uses imagery and structure typical of early-nineteenth-century American poets
- Accurately solve engineering problems using methods from perturbation theory (MATH 501)
- Compare how structure and function are related for key structures of the human nervous system (BIO 406)
Each of these CLOs contains a specific and measurable/observable action (italicized verbs) and an object (content area) of the verb. To articulate good and varied learning objectives, it is useful to consult learning taxonomies. For example, the table below shows Benjamin Bloom’s revised taxonomy for conceptualizing different levels of thinking. Studies have shown that students who are asked to learn at the upper end of the taxonomy (Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating) retain and are able to apply the information better than those where the learning expectation is geared toward the lower end (Remembering, Understanding, Applying).
Observable Verbs  for Instructional Objectives, based Upon Categories of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Revised from: http://www2.gsu.edu/~mstmbs/CrsTools/cogverbs.html)
Depending on the meaning in use, some verbs can apply to more than one category.
|Recall of information
|Represent concepts in one's own words.
in a new situation.
|Use concepts to operate on information and/or show relationships among concepts.
|Use concepts to make judgments about information.
|Use concepts to form a new whole and/or build new relationships.
Note: Because CLOs should be measurable, you should avoid vague and confusing verbs such as know, comprehend, understand, appreciate, familiarize, study, be aware, become acquainted with, gain knowledge of, cover, learn, and realize.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
When you identify situational factors for your course, what is one key pedagogical challenge? How can that pedagogical challenge be articulated as a CLO?
On the next page, we'll consider how to align course learning objectives with course assessments and activities.
Suskie, Linda. Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sesen Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.
NEXT: ASSESSMENTS & ACTIVITIES