The formulation of learning objectives

(By: Hilde ter Horst (Zoëzi) and Riet Martens)

A programme’s attainment targets are a description of the qualities of successful students in terms of knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes (including their professional attitude). Attainment targets are usually formulated in broad terms. They are operationalized in the courses of learning and/or the learning objectives of the various study units (= subjects) of which the programme is composed.

Formulating specific learning objectives for your subject has a number of advantages:


It enables you to accurately determine what you want your study unit to achieve in terms of educating students.


Later, you can set tests to establish whether the required learning objective has been achieved.


Learning objectives give better guidance on how to select an appropriate strategy, teaching materials and teaching methods.


Students are given clear information about the subject matter that they need to master, and about the level of competency to be achieved.


By providing clear information about the knowledge (or prior knowledge) that students have already mastered, fellow lecturers can tailor subjects accordingly.

Main objective and learning objectives

A wide range of terms are used in the educational science literature and didactic literature. We will restrict ourselves to main objective and learning objective.

A main objective is a general description of the qualifications that a student can acquire with the aid of the study unit: “This subject focuses on the design and implementation of major changes in an organization.

A learning objective is a specific description of the requisite knowledge that a student must acquire and apply, or of the requisite behaviour that a student must demonstrate, after completing the subject in question: “On completing this subject, students will be able to formulate specifications for a change plan on the basis of the checklist”.

Formulate five to nine learning objectives for your subject. In doing so, allow for the wishes expressed by others in your field of study and profession, for the characteristics and needs of students, and for the wishes of the programme board (attainment targets and place in the curriculum).

Components of specific learning objectives

In general, there are four criteria for the formulation of learning objectives:



what students should be able to achieve regarding the subject matter in question. To this end, choose verbs that are in keeping with the activity that you expect from students.



details of the substantive material that the student must be able to apply to the activity in question. Describe this substantive material in the most specific terms possible. For instance, avoid “statistical units”, instead use “mean”, “mode”, etc.



under what conditions should the student display the behaviour in question? For example, can they use SPSS, or a calculator, or the article by ......... The conditions set may affect your choice of teaching method (or methods), and the learning activities used by students to achieve the learning objectives.



what is the minimum level of performance that you consider to be successful; what do students need to do to obtain a pass grade for their work? For example, write a policy analysis of the defined problem in no more than two hours, enumerating the pros and cons of centralizing a department.

An example:

On concluding this subject course, students will be able to cite four differences between the socioeconomic problems of the Australian aboriginals and the South American Indians using Richardson's perspective

In short, you must formulate learning objectives as specifically as possible, so that students understand exactly what they are expected to know and to achieve, within what period of time, using what methods, under what circumstances and using what tools.


The learning objective should be formulated such that it can only be understood in one way! Accordingly, avoid vague verbs such as:








have an understanding of


know the meaning of


be aware of

Preferably use unambiguous action verbs such as:
























distinguish between

More verbs



- Kallenberg, T.; Grijspaarde, L. van der; Braak, A. ter: Leren (en) doceren in het hoger onderwijs (Learning to teach (and teaching) in higher education). The Hague 2009, Lemma (ISBN 978-90-5931-427-6)

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