But What Is the Learning Objective?

Posted December 6, 2016

By Guy A. Boysen

Imagine a hotshot graduate student who fancies himself quite the professor-in-waiting. Given the opportunity to independently instruct a section of Introductory Psychology, he selects the perfect book, plans lectures, practices the lectures, practices the lectures, and then practices some more. What he produces is, in some cases, fairly impressive. For example, during the lesson on motivation, he uses the slide below to lecture on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, giving creative examples of people at each stage, and engaging students with some discussion questions. Clear? Professional? Engaging? Check, check, and check.

But what is the learning objective?” Despite the apparent quality of the lesson, if the graduate student could not answer this question, it would be some seriously bad pedagogical news.

To illustrate why that would be such bad news, take a closer look at the graduate student’s lecture slide and reconsider how you would study it if you were preparing for a test.

Would you memorize the stages? Would you test your ability to describe stages? Would you memorize the teacher’s examples or produce your own? Would you form an opinion about the theory’s validity? Now, switching to the teacher’s perspective, which one of those topics would be on the test? Without a learning objective, all options are equally right and wrong – hence, the very bad pedagogical news.

Based on recent work sponsored by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, being a model teacher is, at least partially, defined by the use of learning objectives (An Evidence-based Guide to College and University Teaching; Richmond, Boysen, & Gurung, 2016). After reading this post, you should know how to write a learning objective and be able to explain why they are essential to model teaching.

Defining Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are specific, behavioral definitions of the knowledge, skills, or attitudes that students are supposed to take away from a learning experience. Unlike learning goals, which are often so broad as to apply to an entire curriculum, learning objectives narrowly define what students should be able to do with regard to just one, specific educational experience. A course might have only a handful of broad learning goals – they are typically listed on the syllabus – but the number of learning objectives corresponds to the individual lessons that occur over the entire course. Yes, that means you may have 100 or more learning objectives for a course!

Writing 100 or more objectives may seem like an insurmountable amount of work, but it is as easy as ABC: Audience, Behavior, and Condition (Boysen, 2012).

Audience (A): Who will be learning? This is the easy part for most college teachers because it only has to be written once for each course.

  • Students in [fill in course name] will…

Behavior (B): What will be learned? Here is where the hard work occurs. Teachers must decide what they want students to be able to do after each lesson and put it into terms that can be assessed. Bloom’s taxonomy is an essential tool for writing learning objectives because it defines the levels of cognitive complexity of the learning and can be associated with action verbs that are perfect for plugging into learning objective statements (see Figure).

For example:

  • Students in Introductory Psychology (A) will differentiate classical and operant conditioning (B);
  • Students in Statistics (A) will calculate t tests (B); and
  • Students in Biology (A) will construct pedigrees (B).

Condition (C): In what situation will the behavior occur? Conditions help determine what information or tools students will use when they engage in the behavior. They are not always necessary but can add a much-needed level of specificity.

For example, continuing with the objectives outlined above:

  • Students in Introductory Psychology (A) will differentiate classical and operant conditioning (B) when given real-world examples (C);
  • Students in Statistics (A) will calculate t tests (B) using SPSS (C); and
  • Students in Biology (A) will construct pedigrees (B) using human genetic information (C).

Why Learning Objectives Matter

Writing learning objectives is time consuming, but it is a worthwhile investment in model teaching. For the last few years, I have been part of a team effort to define model teaching (Richmond et al., 2016). We define model teaching as the possession of a set of evidence-based characteristics related to pedagogical training, instructional methods, course content, assessment, syllabus construction, and student evaluations. These characteristics are not the ineffable stuff that separates renown master teachers from the rest of us mere mortals (Buskist, Sikorski, Buckley, & Saville, 2002). Rather, it is a list of nuts and bolts fundamentals that anyone can develop and incorporate into their pedagogy.

Why did we include the use of learning objectives as a characteristic of model teaching? Here are just a few of their advantages, with the best saved for last.

Selection of teaching methods. Pop quiz: Why did you choose the specific pedagogical approach you took in the last class that you taught? If this was a difficult question to answer, learning objectives can help. Classes should be designed backwards; decide what students will learn first, then match the teaching method to the learning objective.

Intentional selection of evaluation methods. Imagine that the learning objective for the graduate student’s lesson on Maslow was for students to devise improvements to the theory. What should the test question for this objective look like? Going back to Bloom’s taxonomy, the cognitive skill represented in a learning objective helps determine its evaluation. If the goal is memorization of facts, multiple choice might suffice; evaluation of those facts, however – a high-level cognitive ability – would likely require a detailed written response.

Useful evaluations of learning. Have you ever tried to teach someone to shoot free throws while blindfolded? Me neither, because accurate feedback is needed for learning to occur. Both you and the learner need to know if efforts are hitting the mark. Teachers who have a list of learning objectives can directly evaluate achievement of objectives and then provide detailed feedback. For example, if the objective is to summarize all of Maslow’s stages and student can only summarize half, then the focus of future teaching and learning efforts is abundantly clear.

Increased learning. The 1970s gave us more than classic rock, it also gave us classic educational research showing that students learn more when they have specific learning objectives (Duell, 1974; Kaplan & Simmons, 1975; Rothkopf & Kaplan, 1972). I told you I saved the best for last!

How would you answer the question?

How would the hotshot graduate student have answered the question “What is your learning objective?” In fact, he couldn’t have answered it. I know because it was me. Although I had enthusiasm and dedication at that point in my career, model teaching requires so much more. After many years of development, I can answer that important pedagogical question before I walk into any classroom – I hope you can as well!


Guy A. Boysen is an Associate Professor of Psychology at McKendree University. He received his Bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN and his PhD from Iowa State University in Ames, IA. He is a generalist whose teaching emphasizes clinical topics and the mentorship of student research. Dr. Boysen has studied a wide variety of pedagogical topics included student teaching evaluations, bias in the classroom, and teacher training.



Boysen, G. A. (2012). A guide to writing learning objectives for teachers of psychology. Society for the Teaching of Psychology Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology Online. Retrieved from http://teachpsych.org/otrp/resources/index.php?category=Outcomes

Buskist, W., Sikorski, J., Buckley, T., & Saville, B. K. (2002). Elements of master teaching. In S. F. Davis & W. Buskist (Eds.), The teaching of psychology: Essays in honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer (pp. 27–39). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Duell, O. P. (1974). Effect of type of objective, level of test questions, and the judged importance of tested materials upon posttest performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 225-323.

Kaplan, R., & Simmons, F. G. (1974). Effects of instructional objectives used as orienting stimuli or as summary/review upon prose learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 614-622.

Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., Gurung, R. A. R. (2016). An evidence-based guide for college and university teaching: Developing the model teacher. Routledge.

Rothkopf, E. Z., & Kaplan, R. (1972). Exploration of the effect of density and specificity of instructional objectives on learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 295-302.