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Teaching Materials

Learning Objectives

What Are Learning Objectives?

It may be best to start with what learning objectives aren’t.  They aren’t simply a list of the topics to be covered in the course.  Certainly, there will be a body of knowledge that students should know and understand by the time the course is complete.  But if the goals for what students should achieve stops there, there may be many missed opportunities for providing them with a more productive learning experience. 

A learning objective should describe what students should know or be able to do at the end of the course that they couldn’t do before.  Learning objectives should be about student performance.  Good learning objectives shouldn’t be too abstract (“the students will understand what good literature is”); too narrow (“the students will know what a ground is”); or be restricted to lower-level cognitive skills (“the students will be able to name the countries in Africa.”).

Each individual learning objective should support the overarching goal of the course, that is, the thread that unites all the topics that will be covered and all the skills students should have mastered by the end of the semester.  Best practice dictates that learning objectives be kept to no more than half a dozen.

Writing Learning Objectives

Experts often talk about using the acronym S—K—A to frame learning objectives.  SKA stands for:

Skills What students should be able to do by the time the course is completed.
Knowledge What students should know and understand by the time the course is completed.
Attitudes What the students’ opinions will be about the subject matter of the course by the time it is completed.

It is best to identify the skills, knowledge, and attitudes the students should gain throughout the course by writing sentences that begin:

By the time the students finish the course, they should be able to . . .

and then supplying a strong, action verb.   Examples of verbs that define student performance in a particular area include: 

  • explain
  • list
  • describe
  • demonstrate
  • calculate
  • report
  • compare
  • analyze


Some instructors use well-defined learning taxonomies to create their course objectives.  Learning taxonomies, the most well-known of which is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Objectives for the Cognitive Domain (1956), categorize cognitive tasks, usually in increasingly sophisticated order.

Examples of Learning Objectives

The following are examples of learning objectives drawn from several courses at MIT (course numbers are in parentheses):

From a physics course on electromagnetism (8.02T)

The overall goal is to be able to explain the enormous variety of electromagnetic phenomena in terms of a few relatively simple laws.

From the introductory course in the department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (16.01-16.04)

Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of the fundamental properties of linear systems, by explaining the properties to others.

From a course in managerial communication (15.279)

By the time you complete 15.279, you should be able to formulate an effective communication strategy by selecting appropriate content, organizational structure, and media.

Learning Objectives and Measurable Outcomes

Ideally, learning objectives should be accompanied by measurable outcomes, which describe ways in which students will be asked to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning objectives. Methods of assessment of student learning can take many forms—exams (written or oral), papers, oral presentations, team projects. Criteria for success (often called rubrics) should be developed so that students understand what is expected of them, and so that they can use feedback to see where they need to strengthen their performance.

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