Learning Goals, Objectives, & Outcomes: They’re All the Same

Assessment has always struggled with language and definitions. One area of confusion is the distinctions between different statements of intentionality. These usually include goals, objectives, outcomes, targets, performance indicators, and so forth. When incorporated into one plan, the result can sometimes look something like this:


Most People Aren’t That Interested in Assessment

For assessment experts, the distinctions between goals, objectives, and outcomes are obvious. Goals are broad, objectives more specific, and so forth.

The problem is that most people aren’t assessment experts, have no desire to be assessment experts, and don’t care about the distinctions. Reinforcing these distinctions  only reinforces the idea that assessment is a complex exercise in bureaucratic compliance, not improvement.

Keeping It Simple

While most people may not be that interested in assessment, they do care about their students and are intellectually curious about how things are going. They also have an intuitive sense about what a goal is. These considerations are what should drive engagement with assessment, not precision in statements of intentionality or filling out a grid.

If we really want to engage people in assessment, we should consider eliminating the perception of arbitrary distinctions, when possible, and focus on intentionality. It doesn’t matter whether statements of intentionality are defined as goals, objectives, outcomes, targets, or aims.

Distinctions about the claims people make when writing statements of intentionality, however, should be considered.

Distinction 1: Outcomes and Outputs

Deborah Mills-Schofield states “outcomes are the difference made by outputs. Outputs, such as revenue and profit, enable us to fund outcomes. But without outcomes, there is no need for outputs.”

Here is an example from two statements that claim to be student learning outcome statements:

  • Students will be introduced to the topics of abnormal mental behaviors…
  • Students will participate in a hazardous materials training seminar.

The problem in the first statement should be obvious. It says almost nothing about what students will learn. It is focused on what the instructor will do, not the student.

There’s no reason the first statement can’t be a goal, objective, outcome, target, or aim. It almost seems kind of pointless to ask people to make a distinction, when they should focus on the claim being made, not the definition.

This first outcome statement describes what instructors do, not what students do. Although the intent of the outcome may be student learning, the statement, as written, evaluates whether an instructor introduced students to the topic, not whether they learned it or not.

The second outcome statement is an improvement in that it describes what the student will do, as opposed to the instructor. If all one wants to do is assess the number of students who attended the seminar, then the statement is fine. It would be wrong, however, to claim or assume that students will learn something from the seminar just by attending it.

Distinction 2: Levels of Assessment

Program and institutional goals will almost always be more broad than classroom or unit goals. Rather than ask individuals to write multiple levels of goals, objectives, or outcomes, it would be better to ask them how their goals align with larger institutional or programmatic goals. This exercise is more intuitive and helps individuals see how their course or activity contributes to a coherent experience for students.

About rlsmith205

Bloomington-Normal, IL
This entry was posted in Assessment - General, Methods and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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