Preparing Instructional Objectives

These guidelines will help instructors prepare course learning objectives. 

What Are Learning Objectives?

  • Objectives are clearly stated outcomes that instruction is intended to facilitate.
  • Objectives define what is to be learned and to what standard of performance.
  • An objective is a description of a performance you want learners to be able to exhibit.
  • Objectives precede design of instruction.
  • Tests or rating scales are developed to measure the success of the instruction and are tied directly to learning objectives.
  • An objective will describe an intended result of instruction not the process of instruction. For example: Intubation is the process; an intubated patient is the outcome (objective).

Why Care About Learning Objectives?

Well written objectives provide a sound basis for:

  1. Selecting or designing instructional content and methods.
  2. Providing a framework for learners to establish expected performance outcomes.
  3. Evaluating the success of the instruction.

Qualities of Useful Learning Objectives

A learning objective communicates an explicit intended instructional outcome. Objectives that communicate an intent have three characteristics*:

  1. Performance the learner should be able to do.
  2. Conditions the learner should be able to perform under.
  3. Criterion: to what standard of performance will the learner be assessed?

Consider: what do you mean when you say “you want learners to know” something? You must describe what “knowing” means. “Knowing” should convey what the student ought to be able to do. For example, learners will assemble a laryngoscope handle and blade instead of learners will know how to assemble a laryngoscope handle and blade.


  • Performance is described by a “doing” word or verb.
  • Performance may be visible like writing or repairing.
  • Performance may be invisible like adding, solving, or identifying.
  • An objective should answer the question “what is the learner doing when demonstrating achievement of the objective?”
  • Overt objectives are those that can be observed directly, e.g. visible, audible, etc.
  • Covert objectives are those that are invisible, e.g. cognitive, affective, etc.
  • Performance of covert objectives can be detected by an “indicator behavior” – an overt behavior that correlates to the covert objective. For example: calculating correct drug dosages in ones head is covert but stating them verbally after calculating them is an overt indicator.


What is the learner allowed to use?

What is the learner to be denied?

Under what conditions is the desired performance to occur? For example: Without references and in a simulated environment learners will be able to assemble a laryngoscope handle and blade without error within ten seconds.


  • Criterion tells the learner how well or to what standard they need to perform in order to meet the objective.
  • Criterion may be a time limit, a speed, accuracy, or a quality.
  • Criterion represents the desired optimal performance rather than merely adequate performance.
  • A criterion may be derived specifically for the objective or may come from an external reference. For example: in a simulated environment nursing students will assist with endotracheal intubation according to guidelines and standards as stated in the AACN Procedure Manual for Critical Care.


  • When drafting an objective, the first step is to identify expected learner performance and draw a circle around it. If there isn’t a performance to draw a circle around then there isn’t an objective.
  • Make sure that conditions described in your objectives tell something about the situation in which you expect the student to perform.
  • When drafting an objective, ask yourself why you want someone to be able to do that. Now draft another objective to describe your answer. Continue this until you have a clear answer.
  • After drafting an objective, ask yourself what someone would need to know or be able to do in order to perform as desired.

* Preparing Instructional Objectives, Mager, Robert F., 1962