The Value of Good Objectives

The value of clear, focused objectives has been well established in education research through the decades (e.g., Duchastel & Merrill, 1974; Mager, 2012).

Among other things, high quality and clearly communicated objectives have been demonstrated to focus instructor planning and lesson design by grounding materials and methods in a clear direction and improve focus of student effort, leading to increased performance.

In the UDL Guidelines, clear objectives may help support student development of executive functioning (e.g., goal setting, strategy development) and self-regulation(e.g., self-assessment and reflection). In essence, if students know where they are supposed to be going, they are better empowered to make choices that will enable them to get there.

In accomplishing these valuable purposes, not all objectives are created equal. What is the anatomy of a great objective?

Consider these pairs. In each case, one is significantly superior to the other. Can you determine which is the stronger learning objective?

  1. By the end of the lesson, students will understand Bernoulli’s principle.
  2. By the end of the lesson, students will be able to explain Bernoulli’s principle.

  1. Students will write a report about the pros and cons of ethics in art
  2. Students will argue the pros and cons of ethical restrictions in art.

  1. 300-level education students will be able to define new education theories for 21st century teaching and learning.
  2. 300-level education students will be able to apply education theory to hypothetical classroom situations.

  1. Geology 101 (gen ed) students will be able to identify several different types of rocks from around the world.
  2. Geology 101 (gen ed) students will be able to utilize the scientific method as a logical framework for identifying natural elements.

Scroll down when ready for the answers.

In each case, objective #2 was superior to #1 (okay, maybe that was too easy). However, in each case, the superiority of objective #2 was for a different reason. You may have picked up on the superiority in each or most cases, but are you able to pinpoint what about it was superior?


Try this for a simple rubric. Good objectives are:

  • appropriately rigorous
  • “disentangled” from means of accomplishing or demonstrating mastery of the objectives*
  • demonstrable
  • measurable
  • valuable and/or relevant to the students.

*That is, for content-oriented objectives, there is often more than one way to express understanding; an objective should not require an unrelated skill (such as “write” or “orally present”) if the objective is for content comprehension. If the objective is skill oriented, then flexibility is provided through other aspects of the course.

So, for example, the first form of the first objective (“students will understand Bernoulli’s principle”) failed the test of being demonstrable and measurable. Understanding is an implicit construct. Note how “explain” is clearly something students could demonstrate and instructors could measure somehow (a rubric?). Much better.

Writing a report in a visual art class means that the instructor is likely entangling “report writing,” a skill which the instructor may not be teaching at all, with the true objective, which is that they want students to be able to evaluate the role of ethics in art. Note that there are multiple ways students could demonstrate the skill of evaluation, with report writing being just one. It’s best to leave that door open for now and focus on what you really want the students to know or be able to do (e.g., evaluate rather than write).

The third set demonstrates an objective that is inappropriately difficult for 300-level students (it would be much more appropriate for a graduate-level course). But inappropriate rigor can also be setting objectives that are not challenging enough for students. Aim for challenging, but reasonable.

Finally, the last set of objectives demonstrate thoughtfulness in terms of what will be valuable or meaningful to diverse students in a class. It is likely that some or many of the students taking geology 101 as a general education credit with no intent to move into the field will find identifying rocks a skill that does not serve them in the future. If the real goal is to develop critical thinking or the capacity to use the scientific method, then lets say so. That has a lot more generalizability and transferability, which means more engaged students and more valuable lessons.


Take a look at your own syllabus and your course objectives. Apply the criterion above. Do you see room for improvement?

If you’d like a consultation to support you in designing good objectives or other aspects of instructional design or Universal Design for Learning, reach out to the instructional designers at your institution or send us an email here at Innospire. After all, as Yogi Berra once said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else.”

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