Objectives and Outcomes

If you have read the Curriculum page, you will by now be aware that the most important consideration in formulating objectives, etc., is what you are teaching this material for. Another way of putting this is to ask what difference you expect (or just vainly hope) it will make to your students. In other words, what outcomes (or simply, learning) are you looking for?

Some rather sad people called educationalists argue long and hard about the difference between “aims”, “objectives” and ”outcomes”. Don't be too hard on them—they are (sometimes) over-worked, (usually) under-paid, and they have lost much of the status and respect they used to enjoy. However, since I am one of them, I have to declare what I think the difference is.

I once took a Master's in education which laid considerable emphasis on curriculum theory. All it convinced me of was that curriculum theory was a sort of "initiation by ordeal" which people had to undergo before they could call themselves "teachers". It didn't actually mean anything in terms of content, but having studied this arcane and esoteric discipline was what set "us" apart from the common folk. I'm no longer quite as cynical: it does have its uses—but the question which still bugs me is: if the people who taught my Master's were so hot on curriculum theory and design, how come they made such a mess of it?

I am not "sound" on this, and if you follow what you read here, I am opening the door to a lot of sloppiness and laziness in planning. However, I am also allowing some semblance of reality and common-sense to remain in the process: the mental convolutions of some curriculum planners are no good to anyone. There is a law of diminishing returns affecting the effort which can go into this. All you need is a good-enough structure.

For practical purposes, objectives and outcomes ought to be the same thing—particularly if you are specifying them before you start teaching. However, the terms are used in a variety of different senses in different texts, so if you are looking them up always check where the author is coming from, and in practice outcomes are more flexible.

Behavioural Objectives

The text-books will tell you that Objectives should be SMART:


They should state clearly what the student should know/be able to do, and at what level.


You should be able to conceive of how their attainment might be assessed


—by the students


Could be seen as similar to attainability, but refers to their appropriateness to the overall task. "Valid" in assessment-speak.


Or achievable within the time-span of the session/lesson/course

This is fair enough, but it is important not to let the tail of defining the objectives wag the dog of the aims of the course or session.

For example, the hard-liners will insist that all objectives are predicated on a behavioural verb. (Incidentally, given that competence-based curricula have largely been developed by people of this ilk, how is it that performance criteria are written in the passive voice?) Such a verb defines an activity which students can observably undertake, such as:

    • define
    • list
    • state
    • calculate
    • make
    • perform

By using such verbs, it is possible to tie Objectives into assessable Outcomes, which can be valuable. But what happens when you really want students to "understand" something, or even to have come to their own conclusions about a debatable topic? What happens when you want them to change their frame of reference so that they see something differently? What happens when you want them to be creative? In other words, what happens when you want them to reach the higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy, in any domain? Or Marton's higher levels? Or those of the SOLO taxonomy? Or Bateson's Learning II?  Or even attain critical reflection and transformative learning?

Part of the answer is here. It involves recognising that behavioural objectives may not go the whole way, but that there is a set of necessary (although not sufficient) conditions to be met, and you can specify those. The trouble is that you end up unable to specify the interesting bits.

Note that according to Hattie's meta-analysis of what works in teaching, behavioural objectives score even worse than individualisation and learning styles, which is saying something; they are less than one-third as effective as the mean score.


It is here that the Outcome comes into its own. In my humble opinion (and plenty of people would not agree with me), it's OK to use terms like "understand" and "appreciate" in outcomes. Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to think of any other terms which are worth using.

The guiding principle, however, is that it should be clear not only to you, but also to students, colleagues, managers, sponsors and any other stakeholders you can think of, what counts as evidence that an outcome has been met.

So if this were part of a course, an outcome for this page/unit might read:

  • Understands principles of curriculum planning.

My hard-line friends will ask "How will you know?" which is a fair question. I might reply that a student will show me a set of Aims and Outcomes he has developed for a course. "OK," they say, "why not set that up as an objective? Something like:

  • Specifies aims for a course
  • Specifies objectives for a course
  • Gives three respects in which aims differ from objectives"

"Because," I reply, "that is not the only valid way in which someone might demonstrate their understanding." They might present me with an academic critique of the assumptions implicit in the behavioural model. They may undertake an analysis of a hidden curriculum and use the language of objectives to articulate what is being taught unintentionally. They may expose the semantic inconsistencies in an example. They may show the lack of fit between the espoused theory of a vocational course and the reality of real-life practice. All or any of these would be sufficient to show me that they understood. If you really must avoid reference to internal states such as "understand", you can produce a description of what someone is likely to do:

  • Demonstrate knowledge, comprehension and application of theoretical principles through the example of a course outline.
  • Discuss the appropriateness or otherwise of an outcome-based model to course design in their particular area of teaching.

...but in each case there has been a slight shift from content to process, becoming more explicit about how evidence is to be provided, rather than the evidence itself. My problem is that this can become restrictive: and indeed that it can hold back the level of sophistication with which the student tackles the task.

So for any course above the most basic and standardised, if we are obliged to specify at this level, give me outcomes every time!

And argue with me!

In fact, I'll argue with myself.


(from my blog of 19 November 2010)

... Graham Gibbs' short but magisterial report on educational achievement in Higher Education appeared in August and I blogged about his presentation based on it it here. Among his observations (p.24) is:

"High levels of detail in course specifications, of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, [...] allow students to identify what they ought to pay attention to, but also what they can safely ignore. A recent study has found that in such courses students may narrow their focus to attention to the specified assessed components at the expense of everything else (Gibbs and Dunbar-Goddet, 2007). Students have become highly strategic in their use of time and a diary study has found students to progressively abandon studying anything that is not assessed as they work their way through three years of their degree (Innis and Shaw, 1997)."

Innis, K and Shaw, M (1997) "How do students spend their time?" Quality Assurance in Education 5 (2), pp.85–89.

Gibbs, G and Dunbar-Goddet, H (2007) The effects of programme assessment environments on student learning York: Higher Education Academy.


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Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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