Writing SMART goals and learning objectives

Goals and learning objectives are invaluable for organizing and teaching a course. They can help you decide which topics to include and their appropriate sequencing as well as which instructional methods and materials to consider. A well-defined goal and objectives can also help you select ways to measure learning and teaching effectiveness. During a course, the goal and objectives provide direction, which allows you to focus your efforts accordingly.

A goal is the final outcome that a learner is to achieve at the end of a learning experience. What do you want your learners to accomplish by the end of your course?

A learning objective is the outcome that learners achieve by the end of a learning session or a part of an entire learning experience. Think of objectives as incremental steps or behaviors that lead up to the goal. What do you want your learners to know or be able to do as a result of the learning session?

Well-articulated learning objectives can help:

  • Clarify expectations for the learner and the instructor
  • Direct the learner’s and instructor’s attention and efforts
  • Increase a learner’s motivation by knowing what s/he will be able to accomplish
  • Help the learner determine how well prepared s/he is to have learning assessed

What makes a learning objective “good”?

A good learning objective is clearly described, easy to understand, and appropriate given the context (e.g., time allotted for the learning, depth and breadth of the learning experience, how the learning fits into a bigger scheme). There are a number of perspectives and strategies for writing good objectives. One helpful mnemonic is the SMART rule:

Specific – What are learners supposed to achieve?

Measurable – What is the quantity, degree, or level of mastery that’s expected?

Achievable – Can the objectives be accomplished?

Realistic – Are resources (e.g., people, facilities, equipment) available to accomplish the objectives?

Timely – Is the time frame for achieving the objectives specified?

Oftentimes, verbs such as “know” and “understand” are used in writing objectives, but how does one truly assess knowing and understanding? Using action verbs such as “explain”, “compare and contrast”, and “demonstrate” is more precise and can help you determine how to more accurately evaluate learning.

Once you have a better understanding of what makes a good objective, deciding what would be appropriate in a given context will come more easily. Here are some examples of poorly-written and well-written objectives.

Here’s a list of behavioral verbs to help get you started with writing learning objectives that are SMART.

References:

Bastable, S.B., & Doody, J.A. (2011). Behavioral objectives. In S.B. Bastable, P. Gramet, K. Jacobs, & D.L. Sopczyk, D. (Eds.) Health professional as educator: Principles of teaching and learning (pp. 377-418). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Cranton, P. (2012). Planning instruction for adult learners (3rd ed.). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Wall & Emerson, Inc.