Know Where You Are Going! Simple Steps to Writing SMART Learning Objectives
This guest post is by Mia Lamm, Senior Instructional Designer at the Center for Teaching and Learning.
"If you're not sure where you are going, you're liable to end up somewhere else." (Mager, 1997).
In my role as an instructional designer and instructor, I have guided many faculty and students about how to articulate learning objectives. My experience shows that writing good learning objectives is challenging. Objectives are often written as afterthoughts rather than drivers of learning outcomes; this is counterintuitive and a common pitfall.
Learning objectives should be a statement of what students will achieve by the end of the lesson, module, or course. SMART objectives make this more explicit by ensuring that the learning objectives are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). While SMART objectives are an excellent way to make things clear, there are other strategies for writing objectives. Here, however, I will expand on writing SMART objectives.
- S pecific: concisely states what will be done and who will achieve it. It should be clear and tangible.
- M easurable: provides detail of how an action or skill will be measured. You can consider a tangible measure, such as a grade or score (but it is not required if it is clearly measurable criteria or standards).
- A ttainable: is possible within the timeframe and with the resources available. Can be achieved within the learning environment/s.
- R elevant: fits the purpose of the class, lesson, or program. Has relevance to the student’s learning goals.
- T ime-bound: has a specific timeframe for completion. Sets a realistic time within which to achieve the learning.
Identify the Need
The first step to writing a SMART learning objective is remembering that learning is a change process. Students begin a course with a particular set of skills, and throughout the learning activities, they gain knowledge and apply new skills. When writing an objective, you should ensure your statement clearly explains the expected outcome. This means identifying what students should be able to know, do, and understand after the learning experience.
Determine the Level of Cognitive Complexity
It is crucial to identify the level of knowledge necessary to meet the goal of a well-written objective. This means articulating specific skills and knowledge that will be mastered. Bloom’s Taxonomy lists six levels of learning (from basic knowledge to higher-order cognitive skills) and is often presented with verbs aligning to levels of performance. I encourage you to use it as a reference. Familiarizing yourself with a taxonomy such as Bloom’s will assist you in writing objectives that align with your expectations of your students. Focusing on concrete actions and behaviors will make student learning explicit.
For example, these verbs target different cognitive levels:
“List three ingredients” (implies recall)
“Describe three ingredients” (implies understanding)
“Use three ingredients”(implies application)
“Decide when to use three ingredients” (implies analysis)
“Determine how many ingredients” (implies evaluation)
“Formulate three ingredients” (implies creation)
Selecting the appropriate action verbs lets you communicate the level of mastery you expect from your students. This will help prevent you from choosing lower-order demonstrations of knowledge when you really want learners to demonstrate higher-order thinking or vice versa.
Make Objective Statements Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound
A good learning objective should be measurable to assess and evaluate progress. Quantifiable objectives should use action verbs, such as those frequently associated with Bloom’s Taxonomy, that describe observable behaviors. Learning objectives should be achievable, meaning learners have the necessary skills and resources to attain the objective. Too difficult or unrealistic objectives may lead to frustration and lack of motivation. Lastly, learning objectives should have a clear timeline or deadline. This helps learners to understand the outcome of a module, lesson, or activity and ensures that progress can be measured and evaluated.
Examples of Objectives Made SMART
By ___(time)___, the ___(audience)___ will ___(verb=performance)___ as measured by ___(assessment/measure + standard/criteria)___.
Articulate an instructional design concept.
By the end of this practicum, students will articulate an evidence-based instructional design concept as measured by the required course development process portion of their final project.
Identify at least three techniques that can lead to successful smoking cessation.
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to identify at least three techniques that can lead to successful smoking cessation, as demonstrated correctly on an interim quiz.
After participating in this session, attendees should be able to explain Public Health Services.
After participating in this session, attendees will be able to describe the 10 Essential Public Health Services (EPHS) and their three core functions in a micro-lesson developed for and assessed by their peers.
When working with faculty, teaching assistants, and students, I always remind them that SMART learning objectives are vital to curriculum development and lesson planning. They provide a map for students and instructors – students will understand what they are expected to achieve and guide teaching teams in appropriate assessment of the learning.
Student learning and engagement are positively impacted when students know what is expected of them and the corresponding measurement is transparent and non-ambiguous. When the learning objectives are SMART, students are better prepared for the instructional experience. By setting clear guidelines for what you intend to teach and the student takeaways, you can ensure you are paving the way for a successful and more motivating educational experience.
For more detail, see the How to Guide: Writing Learning Objectives. If you want to consult with a CTL Instructional Designer, contact CTL Help. We are available to help you!
Hill, S. (2016). How to guide: writing learning objectives. Bloomberg School of Public Health, The Johns Hopkins University.
Mager, R. F. (1997). Measuring instructional results: How to find out if your learning objectives have been achieved. (3rd ed.). Atlanta, GA: CEP Press.
Setting goals and developing specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound objectives. (n.d.). SAMHSA. https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/nc-smart-goals-fact-sheet.pdf