Aims & objectives - Purposes

If an educational programme is to be planned and if efforts for continued improvement are to be made, it is very necessary to have some conception of the goals that are being aimed at. These educational objectives become the criteria by which material are selected, content is outlined, instructional procedures are developed and tests and examinations are prepared.

The principal benefit of defining aims and objectives - goals, learning outcomes, call them what you will - is the provision of guidelines and a common understanding by course providers (lecturers/teachers) for course takers and 'users' (students & employers) of what is to be achieved - the nature of the task at hand. Aims and objectives provide students with a guideline of their teachers' expectations and also provide an idea of the standards demanded of them.

Writing aims and objectives is not an exact science. The idea is not to distil the outcomes of higher education into a list of competencies or lowest common denominators. Studying at university cannot, and should not, be prescribed to the last detail. However, when designing our courses (programmes/modules) we must have had a set of expectations and standards in mind. Writing aims and objectives simply makes these expectations and standards explicit. A cautionary note, however - beware making claims and demands that cannot be substantiated. For example, a claim that students will gain a range of transferable skills may look good on paper, but it needs to be happening 'on the ground' as well.

Allan provides a useful discussion of the 'definition of educational intent', in which she distinguishes between the meanings of objectives and learning outcomes. Given that much of the current university documentation refers to aims and objectives, I have chosen to use these terms and define them to suit the purposes of course and module design & development. What follows, therefore, are some guidelines and advice on the accepted approaches to writing aims and objectives.


Aims and objectives - Distinction

Aims are broad and general statements of educational intent, and should inform students of the overall purpose of a programme or module. They are often written in provider (lecturer / tutor) rather than receiver (student) terms. Objectives, on the other hand, are more focused and indicate what students should be able to do at the end (as an outcome) of the module or programme. They may refer to subject specific concepts and skills, or more general (transferable / generic) attributes and abilities. Whatever, they should be written in student rather than lecturer terms. They are characterised by being :

S pecific: detail about particular aspects of expectations

M eaningful: in language that is understandable to teachers & students

A ppropriate: 'fit for purpose' - suit learners and satisfy standards

R ealistic: given time constraints, resources etc.

T estable: some measure of progress/achievement of them can be made


QAA / HEFCE Definitions

There are 6 Quality Assurance Agency Aspects of Provision:

These aspects build upon the aims and objectives of the subject provider. It is useful, therefore, to consider the QAA definitions of the terms. The QAA definitions followed useful work done by Teaching Quality Assessment division of the funding council - HEFCE. A composite of the QAA/HEFCE definitions is provided here.


The aims express the subject provider's broad purposes in presenting each programme of study in the subject. These aims address the question 'why is the education provided ?'

The aims are commonly expressed in terms of the sorts of abilities and attitudes the stakeholders in higher education - for example students, academics, employers, sponsors (including Government), professional bodies - can expect of the student who successfully completes the specified programme of education. There can be a multiplicity and diversity of aims. For example, the aims might be stated in terms of some mixture of:


The objectives set out the intended student learning experiences and student achievements that demonstrate successful completion of a programme of study.

A statement of objectives should communicate specific intentions for the student learning experience and learning outcomes.

Intended student learning experiences and achievements are normally expressed in terms of the expected learning outcomes of the academic programme and relate to the acquisition of knowledge, the development of understanding and other general intellectual abilities, the development of conceptual, intellectual and subject-specific skills, and the development of generic or transferable skills, or the development of values, of motivation or attitudes to learning.


Hierarchy of aims & objectives

Objectives should map into aims and vice versa:

Historical method : a case study : Boudicca

Aim to introduce students to some of the basic problems which concern historians when dealing with sources of evidence

By the end of the module, students should be able (at a basic level) to:

  1. produce a critical assessment of the sources
  2. formulate, test and modify a hypothesis
  3. suggest various explanations for the revolt
  4. assess the impact and implications of the revolt


Relationships between levels of aims and objectives (a hierarchy even) should be apparent : module objectives should map into module aims, which are encompassed by departmental/programme objectives, which translate from departmental aims, which reflect the University's mission / Teaching Strategy. And departmental aims and objectives should sit within the University's mission / strategy and policy statements concerning student learning.

A further example will clarify this idea:

module objective
at the end of the module you (student) should be able to :
use a petrological microscope, carry out simple optical tests and measurements and identify the common minerals of igneous rocks in thin section.

module aim
enable students to identify the principal types of igneous rocks and explain how they have formed

departmental objective
to enable students to make cogent explanations of fundamental earth processes and materials in both field and laboratory

departmental aim
provision of undergraduate ... degree programmes which combine breadth and depth of educational experience, topical coverage and a balance between pure and applied aspects of the subject

University's mission statement
offering opportunities for a fulfilling education for all students so that they are equipped to play key roles in an environment of rapid social and economic change

The findings of the QHE Project (which reported what employers were expecting / hoping for from graduates and how satisfied they were in these expectations) has significance when deciding the full range of aims and objectives.


Writing aims & objectives

Aims and objectives should encompass the whole student experience and the progression of demand within the subject, and could usefully recognise the three areas or 'domains' of objectives (after Bloom ).

Cognitive: to do with comprehending knowledge and information
enable students to identify the principal types of igneous rocks and explain how they have formed

Affective: to do with attitudes, approaches and values
develop ability to, and responsibility for, critically assessing own work and that of others

Psychomotor: to do with (physical) skills
use a petrological microscope, carry out simple optical tests and measurements

Within each of these aspects, a progression or hierarchy of demand and expectation on the student can be defined. Progression within the attitudinal (affective) area may be exemplified by, say, a change in a history student from realising the need for a critical approach to the assessment of sources of evidence to habitually exhibiting that attitude; or for a medical student knowing what is good practice in terms of bedside manner to exhibiting that behaviour as a matter of course. In terms of skills (psychomotor) this may be seen as a change from the ability to use an instrument or piece of equipment given a set of detailed instructions to selection and 'expert' use of equipment in a novel, problem-solving, situation.

More importantly, it is useful to consider the progression of intellectual demand on students both within a level and across levels within a programme. Recall, perhaps without meaning or significance, of information would be seen as the lowest demand, whilst the ability to judge, compare and discriminate (evaluate) would be seen as the most demanding. A hierarchy of intellectual demand is described below, starting at the lowest expectation. Each level on the progression is defined (briefly and in more detail) and words that are useful to write associated objectives are also provided.

Some colleagues regard this classification as incomplete as some of their planned outcomes - creativity, for instance - are not immediately apparent. However, the 'Categories of Transferable Personal Skills' that resulted from the Sheffield project included, amongst others, the following descriptors under the heading of 'Creative':

formulating hypotheses
extrapolating from the known to the unknown
working with analogues and parallels
use of metaphors and analogies
building on others' ideas

many of which are included within the 'definitions' of the higher order skills on the Bloom taxonomy. My approach is to use the taxonomy for the help it can provide, rather than be limited by it; it is a framework not a cage.

Useful terms to guide writing


Recalls from prior experience
ability to recall specific information, to describe known ways of dealing with the information, or to enunciate previously learned general principles or theories

Identifies, names, defines, describes, lists, matches, outlines, recognises


Understands - without necessarily relating to other aspects
ability to demonstrate one's understanding by translating or paraphrasing, interpreting information or extrapolating from given data in order to determine likely implications or effects

Classifies, explains, summarises, converts, predicts, distinguishes between, extends, generalises, paraphrases, translates, transforms


Uses concepts and abstractions in novel situations
ability to apply abstract principles to particular and concrete situations

Demonstrates, computes, solves, modifies, arranges, operates, relates, employs, classifies, predicts, transfers, uses, extrapolates


Breaking down into components to discover meaning
clarification of a complex situation by breaking it down into its constituent parts, identifying any relationships between the parts and identifying any organisational structure inherent in the original situation or set of data

Differentiates, diagrams, estimates, separates, infers, orders, subdivides, discriminates, distinguishes, identifies, deduces


Combining elements and aspects into a whole
bringing together a number of facts or ideas to create a new pattern or structure such as a unique communication, a proposed set of operations or a set of abstract principles which are derived from the original data

Combines, creates, formulates, designs, composes, constructs, rearranges, revises, compiles, summarises, generates, relates, hypothesise


Judging value and fitness for purpose
judgements about the value of material or methods for a given purpose

Judges, criticises, compares, justifies, concludes, discriminates, supports appraises, assesses, contrasts, relates


Objections to objectives

Another problem with this type of classification is that the words can be used at all levels of education. National Curriculum Key Stage 3 requires children in the early years of secondary schooling to apply and analyse. Similarly, A level syllabi use the terms. How then do we make clear our expectations at first and second degree level? A balance between being specific without being too limiting or prescriptive is the ideal, but very difficult, target. Specificity can be achieved by writing objectives which include performance, conditions and criterion.

Performance : a statement of what the learner should be able to do which may relate to an intellectual skill, a practical skill or an attitude.

Condition : the conditions under which the performance should occur.

Criterion : the level of performance that is considered acceptable.

For example:
By level three, students should be able to use secondary as well as primary sources to develop a critical argument, drawing relevant inferences from what they see, hear and read, working either in groups or individually.


Objectives checklist

As a simple check on the 'validity' of an objective, it is worth asking six questions:

In effect - are they SMART ?

I will close this section, as I began, with a quote. Wilson effectively described the need for clearly defining and communicating the goals of our courses:

"We tend to assume that students know what we want of them. We rarely tell them, we rarely make our requirements specific. This applies at all levels. The objectives of the course are seldom defined, the characteristics of a good essay are seldom specified. Sometimes even basic information like coursework deadlines is not made available. Students are left to guess their way through, relying on their interpretations of our behaviour, and on rumour. Those sensitive to 'cues' from their lecturers do better than others. For many it is a game of 'Battleships' with little feedback until they score a 'hit'. Their studying would be made much easier if we were to specify more. We could specify our objectives - so that students would know when they had met them. We could specify our sanctions - so that students could make realistic decisions. Greater specificity would help students a great deal."

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