Where Are We Going? Determining Course Objectives

Determining Course Objectives

When you sit down to design a course you need a clear set of goals or objectives. Think of these objectives as your course’s roadmap. You wouldn’t set off on a road trip without map or GPS to guide the way. When your learners sit down at a course they expect a clear map of where they’re going, what they’re going to learn, and how they’ll know they’ve learned it.

An objective has three parts:

  • Performance
  • Conditions
  • Criterion


Performance is the behavior you expect the learner to perform. The behavior should be measurable and specific. Here are some bad examples.

  • Become familiar with US government regulations for the manufacture of medicines
  • Develop an awareness of uncommon drug side effects

The problem with these objectives is they’re neither measurable nor specific. How will you measure your learners’ familiarity with US government regulations, or their awareness of common drug side effects? You can’t. Plus, these are broad topics covering a tremendous scope of information. It’s far better to narrow your focus to a specific topic and objective. Here are some better examples.

  • Explain the FDA’s 21 Code of Federal Regulations Part 210
  • Identify nine uncommon side effects of Sertraline

These are better because they pinpoint specific behaviors. Notice the action verbs “explain” and “identify.” They’re much stronger and more specific than “become familiar” or “develop.” Explaining a specific code or identifying specific side effects is an observable, measurable behavior.

Conditions are the circumstances in which the learner will perform the behavior. There is a big difference between, “The learner will identify nine uncommon side effects of Sertraline from memory,” and “The learner will identify nine uncommon side effects of Sertraline using the AHFS DI from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.”

Will your learners be using study aides or working from memory? Will they be performing the behavior alone or in front of an audience? The more specific your conditions, the better your learners will understand what’s expected of them.

Criterion is a description of what constitutes an acceptable performance. This is the evaluation portion where you explain how learners will know they’ve mastered the skill. Criterion involves either speed or accuracy.  

Speed indicates a time limit. For example:

  • Explain the FDA’s 21 Code of Federal Regulations Part 210 in less than 10 minutes

Accuracy describes the range of acceptable performance. For example:

  • Correctly identify 8 out of 9 uncommon side effects of Sertraline


When you combine performance, conditions, and criterion, you get a clear course objective that:

  • Guides activities, instruction materials, and assessments
  • Tells your learners what’s expected of them and what they’ll learn
  • Keeps the course focused on specific skills and goals

Here are our examples with all three parts:

  • Learners will explain before a panel the FDA’s 21 Code of Federal Regulations Part 210 in less than 10 minutes
  • Learners will correctly identify from memory 8 out of 9 uncommon side effects of Sertraline


Before we part ways, here are some final tips for writing good course objectives.

  • Focus on the intended outcomes. What do you want your learners to be able to DO?
  • Stick to specific and measurable goals. Use concrete verbs like “solve” or “identify.” Avoid “fuzzy” verbs like “appreciate” or “understand.”
  • Say what the learner will do, not the course or instructor. Rather than, “This course will teach learners how to…” write, “After completing this course learners will be able to…”

Keep these tips in mind and your learners will soon be ready for the open road.

Businessman Using Digital Tablet

Comments ( 6 )

  1. ReplyNickname ( required )
    Jeffrey, FYI...you might be interested in this public domain, free guide on Developing Cognitive Learning Objectives Using Bloom's Taxonomy, available for download at the Federal Government Distance Learning Association (www.FGDLA.us) . Note: This "guide" was first developed 15 years ago, and has been refined continuously since, as evidenced by the 5th edition: http://www.fgdla.us/uploads/Quick_Reference_Guide_to_Developing_Cognitive_Learning_Objectives_v4_6.pdf Enjoy
  2. ReplySkip
    Your use of "explain" made me somewhat uncomfortable. I felt that it was really too fuzzy. But the overall article will be very profitable for many.
    • Replyadmin
      Constructive criticism is always appreciated. Would you mind elaborating on why you feel the use of 'explain' 'was ... too fuzzy'?
      • ReplyJayr
        I can agree with this sentiment when we don't really know what the terminal objective for the course is. I might have specified this further if I wrote it personally (i.e. "Describe the components of..."). I honestly have no idea what that regulation is or in what context it's going to be applied, so I think it still demonstrates the point you're trying to make.
      • ReplyDonal Clark
        Part of the problem might be the use of a time limit, in this case 10 minutes. Why does it have to be performed within 10 minutes? Would this be a performance failure if it took 11 minutes to explain it on the job? Time limits should only be used if it is a job requirement. Rather than explaining the regulation, it might be better to test the learners by having them selecting the correct scenario from a few choices. That is, rather than test the learners for "knowing" (in this case explaining), you test them for "doing" (performing).
  3. ReplyDan
    Couldn't agree more that the Magerian 3-part objective is an essential part of any learning design! Unfortunately, I've found that a lot of people in the learning design arena have no idea of how to write them, or how important this step is tot he overall process. I've even seen social media links that say objectives are not needed at all! If written correctly, those same objectives become the basis of your assessment, as well. But minimally, they are needed for any learning design. IMHO!!!

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