Learning Objectives, Outcomes, or Competencies: Does It Really Matter?

Instructional designers and curriculum developers can spend hours arguing about fine distinctions between terms such as “learning objectives,” “learning outcomes,” or “skill-based competencies.” These arguments usually focus on differences in breadth, specificity, measurability, and transfer (from the learning environment to the real world). For example, some learning theorists suggest that “objectives” are broader than “outcomes.” Others promote “competencies” as the best way to measure how well skills are transferred from the training environment to the job situation.

So which of these terms should we rely on when designing instruction? I say, ignore the nomenclature. It simply doesn’t matter. What one content developer calls learning objectives, another will call an outcome, and yet another will call a competency. No matter what name you choose, what matters is how useful these statements are in providing a good blueprint for the design of instruction, assessment, and evaluation.

The biggest mistake that most instructional designers make is failing to refine these statements (whatever they are called) to the point that they are useful in guiding instructional development. Consider the following statement, for example:

Students will understand figurative language.

OK, any halfway decent instructional designer realizes that this is a terrible objective/outcome/competency/whatever statement. We all learned in ID 101 that you should never use the word “understand” in such a statement because it isn’t measurable. How can we tell if someone “understands” something?

As presented, this statement is far too broad to be useful in any way. So, how do we fix it? Well, most good IDs will tell you that you have to replace “understand” with something that describes the cognitive level at which the student is expected to know the material. This is where a measure of cognitive rigor, such as Bloom’s Taxonomy or Depth of Knowledge (DOK), is useful.

A complete explanation of Bloom’s and DOK is another blog topic altogether. For our purposes here, let’s assume we should choose a measurable verb that suggests the desired cognitive level. If we expect only low-level mastery (e.g., recall), we might refine the outcome to something like:

Students will be able to list and define the types of figurative language.

Most IDs will be satisfied at this point. However, the statement is still problematic in that it does not specify which types of figurative language the student should be able to list and define. Is it OK if students can list and define the terms simile, metaphor, and personification but fail to identify idioms and clichés? Depending on grade level and course content, this distinction is probably important. Therefore, a better, more refined, statement is the following:

Students will be able to identify and define the following types of figurative language: similes, metaphors, personification, idioms, and clichés.

Suppose, on the other hand, our consideration of cognitive level suggests that the statement should be written at a mid level, such as comprehension or application. In this case, we might have constructed a statement such as the following:

Students will be able to recognize the use of figurative language in poetry.

OK, that sounds pretty good, but it could still benefit from refinement. Consider a quote from a poem, such as the following from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

According to the objective/outcome/competency, a student could demonstrate mastery by saying, “Yes. Figurative language is used in the quote.” This is fine unless what we really wanted was for the student to state that a metaphor is being used to compare the subject of the poem to a day in summer or to suggest what this comparison might mean.

In this case, a more refined statement might be the following:

Students will be able to identify instances of simile, metaphor, personification, idioms, and clichés in poetry and describe their significance.

As I wrote that last statement, I saw even more opportunity for refinement. What do you think? How could it be improved?

As you might imagine, the importance of refinement becomes even more significant at higher levels of cognition. If we say a student should be able to “analyze” something, what—exactly—does that mean? Do we want them to compare and contrast different aspects? Differentiate an item from other like items? If we ask students to “evaluate” an argument, what measures are important? Do we expect them to make an argument and defend it with evidence from a particular source?

It does not matter if one uses “learning objective,” “learning outcome,” or “competency.” What does matter is that individuals developing high-quality lessons refine these statements to the point that they can directly and unequivocally drive instruction and evaluation. Don’t be satisfied once you’ve replaced “understand” with a measurable verb. Think about all of the different ways the statement might be interpreted, and try to refine it to the point that it reflects the real intent of the instruction.

(This blog post was written by guest blogger and Senior Manager for Instructional Design at A Pass Educational Group LLC, Mona Meyer.)

Who is A Pass?

A Pass Educational Group, LLC is an organization dedicated to the development of quality educational resources. We partner with publishers, K-12 schools, higher ed institutions, corporations, and other educational stakeholders to create custom quality content. Have questions?

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