Learning Objectives and Backward Design

Learning Objectives and Backward Design

The gold standard for course design is to begin the process by articulating goals for student learning (learning objectives) and then align the activities, tone, and assignments of the class with them. Educational developers call this process of articulation and alignment “backward design” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005; Fink, 2013) —you start with where you want your students to end up, then work backward.

This may sound obvious, but it’s common to see courses that seem misaligned: an instructor thinks getting his students to think critically is the paramount objective of his course but teaches only through lecture and recall-based exams; a professor thinks it’s urgent for today’s students to slow down and develop detailed close-readings, but packs so many novels onto the syllabus that there’s never time to model or practice this in class. Indeed, UO Science Literacy Program researchers Nicola Barber, Austin Hocker, and Elly Vandegrift found alignments, but also intriguing disconnects, between learning objectives articulated on the syllabus and the types of questions included in course exams.

A good set of learning objectives (LOs) helps us know how to direct our efforts, divvy up class time, and even ensure we occasionally prioritize joy, or fun, or community. If you had an LO like, “Students will come to see themselves as a community of writers, developing and earning trust in one another through thoughtful, constructive critique,” then you might take more time early in the class to actually form a community—learn names, interview each other, attend an optional co-curricular event. Or you might devote time to clearly modeling what helpful peer feedback really looks like; peer reviews might be a part of the final grade in a class that aspires to be a learning community.

Regardless of our level of teaching expertise, revisiting, revising, and reflecting on our learning objectives makes it more likely that we are effectively supporting the learning goals that are most important to us. To support your iterative process, below you will find an overview of the relevance of identifying learning objectives, a description of the genre, sample learning outcomes, and a planning document to use as you develop or revise your own.

Learning Objectives are student focused rather than teacher focused.

LOs remind us that even if we assign brilliant readings, even if we perform our hearts out at the podium, “teaching can and unfortunately does occur without learning” (Linda Nilson, Teaching at Its Best, 17). The best—and perhaps only—measure of successful teaching is in its influence on how students “think, act and feel” (Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 5). LOs direct our attention where it belongs: student learning.

Learning Objectives suggest a reasonable level of faculty accountability for how we use student time and effort, and they help students see what they’re working toward.

While few of us want students to have a fully instrumentalist view of education, we all want students to feel they’re moving purposely through the course and curriculum toward clear goals that they understand and share, not engaging in busy-work they didn't see the purpose of. Ideally, learning objectives invite students to have a mature relationship to the “whys” of their own educations. When we articulate goals, students can buy into them, track their own progress toward them, see coherences across courses and co-curricular activities, use them--all of which directly support significant learning experiences.

What is the genre?

(1) A LO is a succinct statement with a verb indicating exactly what students should be able to do at a given point in your course or its afterlife.

(2) Most of these student actions should be demonstrable through the completion of the tasks you assign. (Though I do think the best teachers have a couple of LOs that suggest student development well beyond the timeframe of the course itself.) Use verbs like “understand” and “appreciate” with caution because you can’t really observe or assess them. Instead, students might “translate,” “compare,” “interpret,” “recommend,” “appraise,” “predict,” “design,” or “rank.”

(3) These goals should have an appropriate level of rigor—they shouldn’t be easy, nor should they be impossible. With their diligent effort and your support, students should be able to achieve them.

(4) Some LOs should demand a high level of student cognition—if they’re all about memorizing and recalling information, that’s probably a missed opportunity for a university-level course.

(5) They should be in a language students can understand, not shrouded in specialist language.


Kinds of goals, samples

Some faculty think of LOs in terms of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy, considering a range of objectives that run from Bloom’s lowest or foundational level, knowledge (students remember/recall) to:

  • comprehension: students can explain/translates ideas and concepts;
  • application: students can use information in another context;
  • analysis: students can break down information into parts, identify patterns;
  • synthesis: students can combine information and ideas to create new knowledge; and, ultimately,
  • evaluation: students can make judgments/assess ideas and theories.

TEP’s appreciates the taxonomy of “significant learning” by L. Dee Fink in his Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2003). It asks us to think about a fuller range of affective, developmental and “metacognitive” dimensions of student growth. It, too, begins with foundational knowledge, then works up to:

  • application: What do I want my students to be able to do (analyze, evaluate, calculate, critique, etc.)
  • integration: What kinds of connections do I want my student to be able to make (between my course and another, my course and the broader field, my course and their everyday lives, etc.)
  • human dimension: How do I want my students to grow in their understanding of themselves or others? What are the personal and social stakes of my class?
  • caring: Do I hope my students come to care about something more? How might the course impact their feelings, interests, and/or values?
  • learning how to learn: Have my students learned something about the process of learning itself that will help them in other courses and environments?

I might put some of these types of objectives/dimensions of learning into action with a list like, “Students in this class will…

  • summarize beautiful, complex storylines and identify rhetorical strategies authors employ in literary texts. (knowledge)
  • develop sophisticated written and oral arguments of their own about how these works function to enchant, trouble or compel readers to deeper understanding of themselves and others. (application/human dimension)
  • connect the concerns of these imaginative works to ongoing debates in American political and cultural life.” (integration, caring)


Getting started

TEP’s backward design handout can help you get started writing learning objectives and aligning them with the work of the course.