Goals, outcomes, objectives – clearing up the confusion (I hope)

If you’ve had anything to do with curriculum over the past few years, then you’ve likely wrestled with the terms ‘goal,’ ‘outcome,’ and ‘objective.’ It’s not surprising they cause confusion. After all,

“What is your goal?”
“What outcome are you seeking?”
“What is your objective?”

all sound like different ways of asking the same question. But in educational circles, the terms have come to take on specific meanings, and it can be hard to tease them apart. So here’s a handy-dandy guide to – what I think is – the correct way of thinking about how these terms are used by curriculum wonks.

Although there are various ways to design curricula, the in-vogue approach this century is backward-design. It starts by asking what we want students to achieve as a result of – that is, by the end of – the course. Hence the fixation on the end-result vocabulary. Let’s take a look at each term in its turn.

The goal is the most general statement about the end result. It’s the answer to the question, “What’s this course for?” Another way to think about it is by asking, “What change do we want to see in the learners as a result of the course?”

Possible answers are, “We want them to become more proficient academic writers.” That’s not a bad goal. “We want them to be able to speak English more fluently.” Pretty good goal. “We want them to be able to understand lectures.” And so on.

The goal offers a general rationale for the course. But It isn’t very specific. So this is where outcomes come in (so to speak).

Often referred to as student learning outcomes, or SLOs, outcome statements are there to hold teachers, students, programs, and schools accountable for results. They are usually expressed as ‘can-do’ statements and describe observable behaviors that successful students should be able to demonstrate. Usually an SLO can be preceded by the words (or it actually includes them), “By the end of the course, successful students will be able to…”

So in the academic writing example above, an SLO might be, “…write a five-page essay in English examining a current topic in the social sciences, with a clear thesis, supporting argumentation, and citations.” Something like that. The statement is in some way measurable, usually using a rubric against which the students’ performance can be gauged. It is useful to people outside the school, such as potential employers or admissions personnel, who may want to know what the student can actually do, and it is useful to the school itself for analyzing its own effectiveness (by asking how many students meet the outcome and at what level of proficiency).

So we have our goal, the general change we wish to see in our learners; and we have our SLO (one or more per goal), a specific, measurable statement of what a student should be able to do. But how are we going to get there?

Objectives break down the goal and SLO into more specific teaching and learning activities. I like to think of objectives as the components of the SLO. Just as the parts of a car, assembled correctly, result in, well, a car, the objectives, or components of an SLO, when put together, lead to the attainment of the SLO or goal. For example, speaking more fluently (depending on the level of the students) might involve ‘practicing conversational routines,’ ‘engaging in free conversation practice,’ and ‘expressing one’s thoughts in speech,’ among others. Objectives can help guide teachers in planning which skills and sub-skills to work on in the classroom to support the students in reaching the outcome.

So that’s the short version of goals, outcomes, and objectives, and I think it more or less represents the consensus, although you will find many points of disagreement or elaboration in the curriculum literature. I wonder if my understanding of goals, outcomes, and objectives is the same as yours? What would you add or change?