Creating Learning Objectives: Why using “Understand” and “Know” are no-no’s!

Creating learning objectives can be tricky, especially if you are new to the task or don’t have a subject matter expert on hand to help. It’s a skill that comes with practice and when written badly, can affect the learning experience.

Learning something new requires us understand subject knowledge or know how to perform a skill. When it comes learning objectives, it’s important to provide the learner with a baseline to can assess their knowledge and understanding – so they can work out if they really “know” or “understand” the subject or skill.

Let’s examine this in more detail with a couple of examples.

I’ll start with a basic one, Maths. I know I can add, substract, multiply and divide – how do I know this? Because I can demonstrate my knowledge. I can also explain how to add, subtract, multiple and divide. As the learner, I know I can perform these skills and explain the knowledge behind them.

If I wanted to send someone on a basic maths course and the learning objective stated “Know basic Maths” it doesn’t explain a lot about what you are going to learn or what you will be able to do after the course. Maybe the course only teaches the students how to add and subtract. If I was unfamiliar with Maths, I might be thinking that all I need to be able to do to “know maths” is to add two numbers together. Another example.

Let’s say your Grandma wants to learn how to use Skype to keep in touch with friends and family. Your Grandma has no experience of using a computer, so you decide to send her on a short course at the local library on a Saturday morning. The course is called “Computers for Beginners” and the following learning objectives are displayed on the advert:

After this session you will be able to:

  • Know how to use a computer
  • Know how to access the Internet
  • Understand basic computer hardware

Before we continue, I’d like to mention here that these objectives are actually from a real course. I won’t name and shame.

The same principle can be extended to the word Learn, for example:

  • Learn how to use a computer
  • Learn how to use the internet
  • Learn about basic computer hardware

Some of you may not notice that there is anything wrong with the above. Let’s explore this in more detail. Think about the above, what do you think your Grandma will be able to DO when she gets home? You might be thinking “well, she’ll know how to use a computer” but what does that mean? What is the definition of “using a computer?” and how do you know when you have learnt the skill sufficiently? How do you measure your knowledge and understanding?

The second objective states that Grandma should be able to use the internet; will she be able to use Skype? Or check the weather from a web browser? Maybe do a bit of online shopping? Grandma will also understand basic computer hardware; is that keyboard and mouse? Or will she learn about other hardware too? Hard drives and CD-ROM drives are basic hardware too, aren’t they?

Grandma specifically wants to learn Skype, do you think this course will teach her the skills she needs to be able to perform the task? You can see where I am going with this. The objectives are vague which makes them ambiguous and confusing. It’s also worth mentioning that Grandma is looking to complete this course in a single session, on a Saturday morning. Looking at the objectives, a vast amount of content could be covered; there is going to be a steep learning curve and a lot to cover.

Let’s look at another course that we could send Grandma on “Computer Basics”

After this session, you will be able to:

  • Identify external computer hardware and their use
  • Use a keyboard and mouse to perform basic computer operations, such as typing and scrolling
  • Access websites using a web browser
  • Describe what a web browser is, and it’s use
  • Use a search engine to look for information on the internet
  • Use Skype to call friends and family

If we look at these topics from the perspective of an absolute beginner, there is still too much content here to cover in a morning class. The reason I say this is because if we look at the first objective, this course is designed for absolute beginners who may have never used a keyboard and mouse; half the session alone could be used on teaching this skill.

To fix this, The course provider would need to understand the student prerequisite knowledge before students attend the class (so the teacher could adjust the class timings) or break the class up into two morning sessions.

It’s important to note here that if we want the students attending class to already know how to use a keyboard and mouse, then a set of prerequisites should be included. This will then help to even out any skills gaps between students and focus on areas that students need to learn, rather than what they already know. That aside, if we look at these new objectives, at least they are clearer and Grandma is going to learn some demonstrable skills after attending her class.

Learning objectives help to set students expectations – there is nothing worse than attending a class, course or workshop only to find out that what you really wanted to know, isn’t covered in the session. This then ends up wasting the students and teachers time and money.

Learning Objectives and Granularity

Good learning objectives are measurable. This is where objectives start forming granularity. Let’s look at Grandma’s course, with a focus on one objective:

  • Describe what a web browser is, and it’s use

Okay so let’s say that Grandma comes home after her class and you ask her “So Granny, what is a web browser?” Grandma might answer “Google Chrome” Well…she’s not wrong….but the learning objective didn’t state how well Grandma had to perform the task.

Learners should not only be able perform a task, but know how well they should be able to perform it.

There are many learning theories and models you can follow to create objectives. Bloom, Mager and Gagne to name a few. I personally like to use a mix of Mager’s Three Part Performance Objective and Bloom’s Taxonomy. With Magers approach, objectives must describe how the objective will be performed any conditions (e.g. will the student use equipment to perform the task?) and the criteria to which the objective should be performed (e.g. speed, accuracy and quality of the objective). An example of an objective written using Mager’s approach is:

“In a swimming pool, students will be able to execute a back flip safely in the water.”

Gange’s 5 Component Guide often tends to be overkill for my needs, I often see this approach used by awarding bodies, in exam syllabi and at academic institutions. An example of an objective written using this approach is below:

“At a swimming pool on a 3-meter board, the student will execute a jack-knife dive by diving with smooth and continuous movement, entering the water in a vertical position”

I had a conversation with someone recently who mentioned that they found some learning objectives to be too complicated (such as the above) granular and confusing. In some instances, that may be the case, but it all depends on the subject, course, audience and how/if the objective is going to be assessed or demonstrated.


Objectives should be written in a way that tells the learner what they are going to be able to do after attending a workshop or course and how they should be able to perform it. Objectives should not be written using vague verbs, such as know or learn and the objectives (where required) should be measurable.

My recommendations would be to always make sure your objectives are measurable and demonstrable. Include action verbs in your objectives, tell the learner what they are going to learn and how they are going to know they’ve learnt it and to what extent.

Please note that this is a whistle-stop tour of creating learning objectives. I have provided some links below to some useful resources where you can research this topic in more depth.

Useful Resources

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