What are Aims, Objectives and Learning Outcomes?

Within education and training settings, we often use the terms ‘aims’, ‘objectives’ and ‘learning outcomes’. Some educators and trainers struggle to understand the difference between these terms. They often use them interchangeably, even though they have specific and distinct meanings.

In this article, we will explore the meaning of these terms and think about how they relate to the process of designing or planning training/education programmes, modules and learning activities.

We will use the following terms throughout the article:

  • Educator refers to teacher, facilitator and trainer
  • Training refers to both training and education
  • Participant refers to learners and students
  • Course refers to a training programme, short course or module.

We will use various examples to outline these differences. However, the principles are applicable in any training/educational setting.

What are aims?

Aims are broad, general statements concerning the overall goals, ends or intentions of teaching or training activity, based on the identified needs. They provide the shape and direction of the course, focusing on the changes you are trying to make.

Aims are the largest category, usually relating to the larger goals such as critical thinking, transfer of content, or creativity.

Why are aims important?

Aims help educators to design purposeful courses/training programmes and achieve wider goals. At a basic level, aims try to answer these two questions:

  • What is the purpose of this course?
  • What is the course trying to achieve?

Which words are used to describe aims?

Aims typically use words such as:

  • ‘To improve’
  • ‘To increase’
  • ‘To reduce’
  • ‘To provide’
  • ‘To introduce’.

What are learning objectives?

Learning objectives describe what the educator will do to achieve the aims in the course/session.

They describe the activities the trainer will be doing to achieve the stated aims, focusing on the content.

Why are learning objectives important?

Having clearly articulated learning objectives will help participants to:

  • Anticipate what they will gain from an educational experience
  • Track their progress and know where they stand
  • Know in advance how they will be assessed.

Which words are used to describe learning objectives?

Objectives must be written using strong positive statements. It is essential to use words describing activities which can be observed, such as:

  • State
  • Describe
  • Explain
  • Identify
  • Analyse
  • Compare
  • Demonstrate
  • Plan
  • Develop
  • Use.

What are learning outcomes?

Discovering the concepts of intended learning outcomes (or simply learning outcomes) is a lightbulb moment for most educators.

Learning outcomes are what participants produce at the end of the learning activity. They explain what participants can do because of the instruction, analysis, or discussion.

Educators assess participant learning through these outcomes. Therefore, learning outcomes must be measurable and observable.

Why are learning outcomes important?

Learning outcomes are important because they:

  • Focus on what participants can do on completion of the learning activity (training, session or module).
  • Force the educator to take a student-centred approach.
  • Force educators to constantly think about what the participant knows, what they want to know, what they need to be able to do, and what behaviours (the educator) hopes that they will be demonstrating.
  • Help the educator prevent overload in their courses, for example, sticking to the recommended six learning outcomes per module and four to six per session.
  • Help the educator to critically reflect on whether what they are telling the participants offers value to them.
  • Force the educator to think about what they will do with the knowledge. If it’s unclear what use the knowledge is to the participant, perhaps it should not be in the course.
  • Help the educator ensure that there is a balance in their teaching and is mapped to the three domains of learning, i.e. cognitive, affective and psychomotor/behavioural learning.

Educators may sometimes notice that there is an overemphasis on the knowledge in the course. Therefore, they must look at ways to develop the student's skills and attitudes, for example, around how they solve problems and critically examine the learning materials or work together collaboratively.

Learning outcomes force the educator to be reflective regarding whether they are inclusive. They must ask whether the intended outcomes are appropriate to the participants because they may have different expectations of what they will learn. They also help the educator decide if they are making effective use of the range of perspectives they bring.

The learning outcomes help educators ensure that the session or module builds in complexity as it progresses. The educator might begin with getting participants to recognise or describe a new concept, which could be achieved by them doing some pre-reading in advance. The educator might progress from that to getting them to apply that concept to solve a problem, possibly in their own context. Having applied the problem, educators might think about getting participants to critically evaluate the concept in light of their experience or someone else's in light of the context.

Then, once educators get to grips with critical evaluation, they might get participants to create something that might be a list of recommendations for someone else. It might be a planner or a series of resources that someone else would find helpful. Learning outcomes are a handy guide in the teacher's scope and variety.

Why do learning outcomes matter?

Traditionally, course designers prioritise the content, focusing on what they intend to teach and deliver. This content was mainly delivered in lecture format, usually via PowerPoint. We commonly refer to this approach as 'trainer-centred'. With this approach, it was difficult to identify what the participant should be able to do.

Which words are used to describe learning outcomes?

Learning outcomes should be stated using clear and measurable verbs (SMART). Educators must use words that describe observable activities, such as:

  • State
  • Describe
  • Explain
  • Identify
  • Analyse
  • Compare
  • Demonstrate
  • Plan
  • Develop
  • Use
  • Distinguish.

The more specifically action-based the learning outcome, the more measurable and feasible it is for students, faculty, and administrators.

The wording of your learning outcomes matter. Articulate what students will be able to do using action verbs, the content involved, and the context for using the content.

We can think of this in three categories:

  • Action word
  • Learning statement
  • Criterion.

Since learning outcomes are measurable and observable, the action words must also be measurable and observable.

Words like ‘learn’, ‘know’, and ‘understand’ are not observable actions. Upon encountering these words, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does learning look like?
  • How will I know what students know?
  • How will they show their understanding?

Visualising the action should lead you to the action words that will produce a measurable, observable learning outcome.

Bloom’s taxonomy

Learning outcomes are important because they:

Bloom has developed a list of actions that express the learning level associated with outcomes. Lower-level learning outcomes might call on students to define, state, explain, and modify, while higher-level outcomes require students to compare, justify, or design.

This is another reason why action words are important to learning outcomes. With unobservable words like learn and know, it is unclear what level of learning is expected. Returning to our examples, any original, poorly-written outcomes could be defined in terms of novice or expert learning. The action words help distinguish the difference.

The educator writes and reviews new activity descriptions or syllabus and considers whether or not the difference between an objective and learning outcome is clear to them and their students.

Distinguishing between the two makes clear what the activity will cover and what students stand to gain from participating in the activity.

Summary

  • In short, aims dictate the general purposes of a course, project, or activity.
  • Objectives lay out the plan for how these goals will be met or what the instructor will provide. Objectives are what is intended.
  • Learning outcomes exhibit what the participants do as a result of the activity. Learning outcomes are what is actually achieved.

Due to the sequential nature of these activities, a syllabus or project description usually describes the goals first before providing the objectives and learning outcomes.

Putting aims, objectives and learning outcomes into practice

Here at the Mandatory Training Group, we are committed to ensuring that our courses can help learners practice their learning. In putting aims, objectives and learning outcomes into practice, the following courses are suitable for our learners:

  • Award in Education and Training - Level 3 TQUK Online Qualification
  • Understanding Assessment in Education and Training - Level 3
  • Understanding and Using Inclusive Teaching and Learning Approaches in Education and Training - Level 3
  • Understanding Roles, Responsibilities and Relationships in Education and Training - Level 3.

References and further reading

  • Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. and Krathwohl, D. (1956) - Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Volume 1: The Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay.
  • British Broadcasting Corporation (2022) - Business aims and objectives.
  • Kennedy, D. (2009) - Writing and Using Learning Outcomes: a practical guide. Quality Promotion Unit, University College Cork.
  • Krathwohl, D. (2002) - A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview. Theory into Practice, 41 (4): 212-218.
  • McKimm, J. and Swanwick, T. (2009) - Setting learning objectives. British Journal of Hospital Medicine 70 (7): 406-9.
  • Waterstones Booksellers Limited (2010) - Practice Teaching in Healthcare by Neil Gopee | Waterstones.

Where can I find online training courses for aims, objectives and learning outcomes?

The Mandatory Training Group is the leading UK provider of accredited aims, objectives and learning outcomes training courses for all sectors, including health and social care, education, local government, private companies, charitable and third sector organisations.

Alternatively, you can contact our helpful Support Team byclicking hereto tell us more about aims, objectives and learning outcomes training courses.

Online training courses for aims, objectives and learning outcomes

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