Goals vs. Objectives: What’s the difference?

In our last post, I talked about how a strong learning goal could make a class much more powerful. As with any piece of writing, that post went through some rounds of revision, with the first round calling for a pretty substantial alteration. In that initial draft, most of the content was similar, but it used the terminology of “learning objectives.” Now it discusses “learning goals.” This was actually a big blunder on my part. But why do I now consider it a blunder, and what’s the difference? 

The Big Blunder Revealed

To use a basic and relatively universal example, “learn to read” might be a good learning goal. Most or all educators would agree that student literacy is a good idea, but what exactly does “learn to read” look like in the class room?

Here’s where learning objectives come in. Unlike the broad goals, objectives are more specific and measurable. Running with our “learn to read” goal, a learning objective might include “read Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish aloud without missing any words.” See the distinction?

If you were to ask whether a student met the learning goal, the answer could easily be an iffy “um… sort of.”

If you were to ask whether a student met the learning objective, the answer could be a confident “yes” or “no,” and if “no” you can quantify by how much they missed it.

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Unlike the broad goals, objectives are more specific and measurable.

So which should a teacher focus on – establishing learning goals or establishing learning objectives? Both are important. The learning goal fits with a larger curriculum or teaching philosophy. It takes a big-picture approach to what you want your students to learn. The main purpose of the learning objectives is to measure whether or not students are meeting the learning goal; they must be established with the learning goal in mind, and one or more learning objectives should be established to measure every learning goal.

Come Along For The Ride

Now, let’s get a little meta here. This is a teaching blog, and I’m using it to teach. If I practice what I preach, shouldn’t I have learning goals and objectives here? I should and I do. The goal of this blog is to share data about pedagogy so that as I become a better teacher, you might come along for the ride and enhance your teaching too. That’s an awfully broad and vague goal, so a learning objective I’m hoping to check off in support of that goal with this particular post is to have you, the readers, make an explicit effort to establish learning goals and learning objectives for your classes.

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…the outcome is reflecting back on the class and assessing what the student(s) actually accomplished.

I haven’t really mentioned them until now, but learning outcomes bear mentioning as well. These are usually extremely tightly related to your learning objectives, but are the actual products of the class. Let’s back up to our One Fish, Two Fish example. We’ve already specified the goal and an objective. A logical learning outcome would be the student smoothly reading One Fish, Two Fish aloud from beginning to end. You might think that outcome sounds like the objective, but there is a key distinction. The learning objective is identified prior to the class looking forward as an intention of what will be learned, whereas the outcome is reflecting back on the class and assessing what the student(s) actually accomplished. To measure those learning outcomes, you will have various forms of assessments as well, which we will be addressing in a future post.



Jamie Kopco is finishing up his Ph.D. in Entomology. Among other pedagogical tasks, he is teaching an undergrad/grad class, doing science outreach, and generally trying to foster a sense of curiosity and discovery.



Submit a pedagogical question or comment to the Office of Teaching and Learning (ndsu.otl@ndsu.edu) for answers in an upcoming blog post.

2 Replies to “Goals vs. Objectives: What’s the difference?”

  1. Thanks for sharing this amazing information it will be really helpful for me.
    I like all your post and I bookmark your website to see your latest post.
    Such an amazing blog.

  2. Thank you Jamie, for sharing this. One of the challenges we face at NDSU with assessment terminology is how different the various specialized accreditors that accredit some of NDSU’s programs use assessment terms. For instance, ABET (NDSU’s engineering specialized accreditor) uses “Student Outcomes” to describe the learning that “prepares students to attain the program educational objectives” while “Educational Objectives” are pretty vague but generally refer to what the program seeks to achieve (http://www.abet.org/accreditation/accreditation-criteria/criteria-for-accrediting-engineering-programs-2016-2017/#outcomes).
    In contrast, CAEP (NDSU’s teacher education accreditor) talks about “Teaching Standards” to reflect what candidates should know and be able to do.
    As another example, ACPE (NDSU’s Pharmacy program accreditor) uses the terms “Educational Outcomes” along with “Standard” to describe the foundational knowledge, essentials for practice and care, approach to practice and care, and personal and professional development. And this is only three examples from the dozens of specialized accreditors that work with programs at NDSU.
    I wish specialized accreditors would reach some agreement on how they use these various terms, because it can make it challenging to have a conversation about assessment at NDSU given all the various definitions and uses of these words we have to navigate!

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