Untangling Outcomes, Goals, and Objectives
Let’s start with a recent question from one of my instructional design course participants:
“I’m getting tied in a knot trying to differentiate these two terms (outcomes and objectives). Are they basically the same except for the context?”
Unfortunately, the two terms are often used interchangeably by many instructors. However, when working in the instructional design or curriculum development areas, we need to be more precise with how we use each term — and that can be further complicated by the fact that different organizations use the terms differently! For general purposes, outcomes are at a higher level. Programs have specific outcomes, which must be covered across the courses. Courses have primary outcomes. Learning goals are generalized statements of what you hope to cover in specific units or lessons, which are then delineated into specific learning objectives.
In general, you should be able to tie a learning objective back to a course learning outcome (and, by extension, back to a program outcome). Each program outcome should be covered by a course learning outcome in at least one course. Each course-level learning outcome should be covered by one or more learning objectives.
Think of it this way to help remember — outcomes are what you hope to get out of something in a broad sense. Objectives are what you plan to cover and assess right here and now (in this unit/lesson/activity). Objectives are designed to meet outcomes.
Why Do We Need Learning Objectives?
For our purposes, let’s focus on creating good learning objectives. These are vital before we design our lessons, units, or online course modules.
Objectives are specific measurable statements about learner performances. In other words, the steps or things you must do to reach the goals. You may have been taught to formulate goals like this:
By the end of the lesson students should be able to understand the difference between…
Instructional design would dictate more specific objectives because objectives and assessment are intrinsically linked. “Understand” is not a measurable characteristic. Instructional design would dictate the use of behavioral or performance objectives.
Writing Learning Objectives
Mager (1975) Model for Objectives
According to Mager (Vector Solutions, 2020), objectives have three components:
- Conditions, and
- Criteria or standards
This is also known as criterion-referenced instruction, where the desired behaviors are measured against specific standards and self-achievement instead of norm referencing, where students are measured against the performance of their peers.
When writing an objective in this way, you start with:
- A measurable verb (Bloom’s taxonomy (TeachThought, 2023; University of Toronto,, 2023) is an excellent reference point)
- State the conditions under which the action is to be performed
- The measure you will use to determine success.
By the end of the lesson (condition), the student should be able to list (behavior) in order the five stages of mitosis within 30 seconds (criteria).
Some would argue this is still not detailed enough.
The ABCD model of writing learning objectives breaks an objective down into four components (Kurt, 2020):
Watch LearningDctr (2013)’s overview video for a good introduction to the ABCD model:
The SMART Model
Another model for writing clear lesson objectives is the SMART model, which stands for:
DecisionSkills (2014) provides a good overview of SMART Goals:
GBS Corporate Training (2013) provides another good overview:
Additional Advice for Writing Learning Objectives
The ABCD model explicitly focuses on your Audience as one of the key elements when writing learning objectives. Regardless of which model you follow, it is important to keep your learner audience in mind. While program or course-level learning outcomes often include a lot of technical language and are often written from an administrative point of view, good learning objectives should speak directly to your target learners. Learners should be able to read a learning objective and understand exactly what they are expected to know and do. I recommend:
- Speaking directly to the learner and using “you will” instead of “students will.”
- Using plain language (except where subject-specific language is central to the objective itself) at a reading level that is appropriate to the age and experience of your target learners.
- Include just one action verb per objective. That way, your objectives can more easily serve as an assessment checklist for the instructor.
- Break down more complex tasks and skills into discrete objectives. It is perfectly okay to use a stem for an objective and to include a bullet list of sub-objectives.
Sample Program or Course-Level Learning Outcome
The following is an example of a program or course-level learning outcome that could be tied to one of my instructional design for online teaching and learning courses and the development of participants’ ID projects.
Students who successfully complete the course will have reliably demonstrated the ability to:
- Outcome 1.0: apply current theories, models, concepts, and strategic approaches to the design of an online learning module.
Sample Learning Goal
A potential learning goal for this chapter and a module on outcomes and objectives for one of my instructional design courses could be:
- Identify and craft appropriate learning objectives for a lesson plan, unit plan, or online course module.
Sample Learning Objectives
After reading this chapter, reviewing the recommended resources, and completing the suggested activities, you will be able to:
- Distinguish between learning outcomes, learning goals, and learning objectives.
- Describe the Mager, ABCD, and SMART models for writing learning objectives.
- Identify areas for improvement with existing learning objectives.
- Write appropriate learning objectives for lesson planning, unit planning, or online course development projects.
Before proceeding to design your ID project, determine the following:
DecisionSkills (2014, May 22). SMART Goals – Quick Overview. https://youtu.be/1-SvuFIQjK8
GBS Corporate Training. (2013, March 12). SMART Objectives. https://youtu.be/1T3o-ruJ8uA
Kurt, S. (2020, December 17). Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Objectives: The ABCD Approach. Educational Technology. https://educationaltechnology.net/using-blooms-taxonomy-to-write-effective-learning-objectives-the-abcd-approach/
LearningDct (2013, January 2). Instructional Objectives ABCD. https://youtu.be/6b9ahqnC8Xc
TeachThough (2023). Bloom’s Taxonomy Verbs for Critical Thinking. https://www.teachthought.com/critical-thinking/blooms-taxonomy-verbs/
University of Toronto (2023). Action Verbs for Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Center for Teaching Support & Innovation. https://teaching.utoronto.ca/resources/active-verbs-for-blooms-revised-taxonomy/
Vector Solutions (2020, May 6). Robert Mager’s Performance-Based Learning Objectives. https://www.vectorsolutions.com/resources/blogs/robert-magers-performance-based-learning-objectives/