Writing Learning Objectives – A challenge from an unworkshop

An Unworkshop is a space where faculty informally come together to offer feedback and discuss among others faculty pedagogical challenges. Faculty are encouraged to submit a challenge as well as comment on another. Writing in any way on three separate challenges or responses is equal to meeting one faculty learning outcome (FLO) in UCO’s 21st Century Pedagogy Institute. Faculty attendees are asked to select the FLO, create an artifact, and write a critical reflection merging all three experiences together. Challenges are from UCO faculty members and all the first responses are from 21CPI staff.

Challenge: My challenge is about learning objectives for upper-division, major-required courses. I know how to train students for grad school, and I know how to teach intro-level nonmajors. I’m less confident about how to design a class for the students in the middle, those who are majoring in my area but don’t want to become academics (the majority of our majors, and rightly so). I’d like to get a more definite sense of what the learning objectives ought to be for majors who don’t need the specific professional skills of a researcher and how to design assignments that practice the skills that lead toward those objectives.

Response: I’m assuming you are discussing a different course and not the upper-division course. It wouldn’t make sense to have two different outcomes for the same course. Evaluating students in a class with the same course number in two separate ways might result in an ethical dilemma. Your learning objectives for the course in the middle would be created in large part by why the course is in the curriculum. All of the courses (major vs. nonmajor) that have the same prefix and number, would need to have the same objectives and outcomes. However, it is not uncommon to have a course with two different course numbers in the same course, e.g., XXX 400 and XXX 500. If the required course indeed does not have any specific outcomes related to an undergraduate major degree, why is it being offered? Furthermore, what is the point of the course in the major? An affirmative response to these last two questions would be the beginning of your outcomes. Keep in mind you asked about Learning Objectives (LO) not Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs).

Frequently, LOs are created without faculty input, they just exist in the course catalog. A course may have 1-15 LOs, with 3-5 SLOs). All objectives lead to an outcome. Learning objectives are typically scaffolded over a course semester leading to achieving one or more of the SLOs.

Learning Objectives Learning Outcomes
  • Target to aim for
  • What you hope will happen
  • What knowledge & skills “need to know”
  • Conclusion of an action
  • What actually did happen
  • Written in future “will be able to do”

An effective and efficient method to determine the LOs and SLOs is through backward design – a three step process:

  1. Determine what the Student Learning Outcomes are for the course. What do you want the students to be able to do? Why is this course in the curriculum? What is the significance of this course?
  2. Determine how you will know whether a student achieves one or more of the SLOs. They will need to know all the LOs scaffolded to the SLOs, which will need to be visible. For ideas on how to create a visible assessment, look at the book, which many faculty purchased from CETTL, Learning Assessment Techniques by E. Barkley and C. Major. It contains at least ten assessment techniques for each cognitive level.
  3. What knowledge, skills, and attributes will the students need to know to be able to achieve the SLOs? What exercises, assignments, material will they need to use to have the ability to respond to the LOs and SLOs?

Therefore, to create LOs for this course, you would first need to decide the point or goal (i.e., the SLOs). Once you know the SLOs it is an easier task to determine what a student would need to know (i.e., LOs) to achieve the outcome.


  1. I feel like sometimes it can help to look at either Bloom’s taxonomy. It often boils down to those midlevel classes are doing middle-of-Bloom’s-pyramid tasks. You focus on applying instead of evaluating & creating (senior-level) or remembering (freshmen-level).

    Typically, whenever I run a 3000-level class, I treat it just like a 4000 class but take away the big research paper at the end. Same amount of reading, same difficulty of tests, same difficulty of classwork. So, instead of tests, a research paper, and classwork making up their grades, it is just tests and classwork. Sometimes, depending on the midlevel class, I will still have them write a paper, it just won’t be a research paper–more like a personal response paper. I figure, by otherwise running the class as a 4000-level, I am preparing them for those upper-level courses.

    If you don’t like Bloom’s taxonomy, there are others. Even the University (or maybe it’s the colleges?) have guidelines for what sorts of words should be in the learning objectives for each level of course. Those words should give you a sense of the tasks, and where students should be at in this point.

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