Educational Design Part 3: GOALS & OBJECTIVES

This is third post in a series on systematic educational design.

In a learner-centred curricula, both goals (implicitly) and objectives (explicitly) ‘‘should be a statement of changes to take place in students.’’1 Goals and objectives serve as a communication bridge between faculty and learners. In essence, goals are general (often intangible or abstract) descriptions of the curriculum. In contrast, objectives are specific elements of knowledge, skills or attitudes to be attained by the learner as a direct result of participation in the curriculum. Objectives can only be set once the curricular goals are known. (Goals are comprised of multiple objectives.) Objectives then determine the optimal instructional method and assessment tool.

Within HPE, objectives typically follow a behaviourist model, where they are defined as observable, measurable, learner-actions resulting from a curricular intervention. Such a paradigm frequently accentuates cognitive behaviours, ignoring non-cognitive domains (e.g. affective and psychomotor). Bloom would argue that this distinction between domains is artificial because they are inter-related.2

Selecting specific learning objectives from a vast list of potential options requires attention to feasibility. A needs assessement can often provide an overwhelming number of options for learning objectives. Triaging the objectives for inclusion in a curriculum should consider the prevalence, importance, educational impact or generalizability of the content represented.3

Denyse Richardson and Leslie Flynn have a very practical chapter on learning objectives in Educational Design.  I’ve previously shared their excellent taxonomy of learning objectives.

Richardson and Flynn provide an excellent step-wise approach to writing learning objectives.

Learning objectives consist of four elements:

1. A time reference (during which learning occurs). This may be reflected in the level of the learning objective. For example, residency-level objectives reflect competency acquisition over the course of a residency program, whereas workshop-specific objectives reflect an activity that takes place over a period of hours.

2. A performance description of what the student should be able to do, and the level of sophistication of that performance. Using action verbs that identify an observable behaviour is crucial here. Frequently, verbs such as understand, appreciate, be aware of and know, which fail to describe a readily observable action or outcome, are inappropriately selected.

3. The conditions under which the learner will perform the task. The educational tools and aids that will be provided or denied should be made clear.

4. The criteria for assessing student performance, including the minimum standard for acceptable performance, such as the degree of accuracy of performance.” 4

From: Educational Design: A CanMEDS Guide for the Health Professions
From: Educational Design – A CanMEDS Guide for the Health Professions

For all the organizational benefits that learning objectives provide, they have been criticized for:1

  • inflexiblity;
  • intolerance of opportunistic teaching;
  • lack of creativity; and
  • trivializing learning content.

How do you use learning objectives?  Paperwork only for accreditation? Core (and second) task when designing a curriculum?


  1. Tyler R. Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1949.
  2. Bloom B. Taxonomy of educational objectives. Handbook II: affective domain. New York: David McKay; 1964.
  3. McAvoy B. How to Choose and Use Educational Objectives. Medical Teacher. 1985;7(1):27-35.
  4. Richardson D, Flynn, L. The Road Map: Learning Objectives. In: Educational Design: a CanMEDS guide for the health professionsedited by Sherbino, J, Frank JR.  Ottawa: Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons; 2011.]

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