Learning Objectives: GOAL!?!

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Learners get the best results when they have to answer questions first.

Johan Cruijff famously said: “If you don’t shoot, you can’t score.” Well, we’ve all seen the evidence for that in the recent European Championship 2021 and, to stay with this theme, we discuss various studies about ‘scoring’ with (learning) objectives.

We’re used to seeing and using learning objectives. We’re used to defining them as teachers, instructors, or learning designers and many of us have also been exposed to them as learners. You also see them on Digi boards, in textbooks, and other learning materials, and they’re recommended everywhere. But strangely enough, little (yet luckily some!) research has been done on whether, and how, learning objectives work.

It’s difficult to say when exactly learning objectives made their entrance into education, but 1956 seems to be a safe bet. In that year, Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues wrote their famous taxonomy of educational goals for the cognitive domain (knowledge, understanding, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation), followed by taxonomies for the affective domain (Krathwohl et al., 1964) and the psychomotor domain (Simpson, 1966).

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Also in the ‘60s, as Will Thalheimer explains in this video, Bob Mager was seen as the ‘king of instructional objectives’. Mager’s criteria for instructional objectives included:

  1. The performance (level) the learners should be able to achieve.
  2. The conditions under which they should be able to achieve that performance.
  3. The criteria for acceptable performance.

Then Rothkopf and Billington (1979) studied what happens when you divide the learning materials into two sets of concepts. Some were targeted by learning objectives and some weren’t. As Thalheimer explains in this video:

When they didn’t provide any learning objectives, the information targeted by learning objectives [intentional learning; Paul & Mirjam] and information not targeted by learning objectives [incidental learning; idem] was learned about the same. However, when they presented learning objectives, the information not targeted was learned a whole lot worse than the targeted information. The non-targeted information was also learned worse compared to how the non-targeted information was learned when no learning objectives were presented.

It’s commonly accepted that learning objectives help learners guide their learning behavior and, more specifically, let them know what they need to know and be able to do at the end of a – for example – lesson, course, learning path, learning experience, semester, or entire academic year. We generally claim that they focus learners’ attention on key information, facilitate self-directed behaviour and its monitoring. They also seem to increase learner involvement and reduce their uncertainty, and sometimes even link the subject matter to its application. A miracle cure, so it seems.

But, as Rothkopf and Billington (1979) showed, learning objectives also seem to be a double-edged sword. So, the question is: (how) do learning objectives really work (goal!) and how can they be improved, in other words: How can they not just be a ‘goal’ but  how can they become a GOOOOAL!

When we look at research by Rothkopf and Kaplan (1972) and Britton, Glynn, Muth, and Penland (1985), it’s clear that it’s important how specific the wording of the learning objectives is. As Thalheimer says: “The words matter! They must be specific enough to be triggered by the words that will be used in the learning material and words that aren’t salient don’t matter. This also means (think of the double-edged sword) that we need to pick our words carefully because Rothkopf and Billington (1979) also showed that learners pay less attention to the information that wasn’t directly targeted by the learning objectives. In other words: Choose wisely!

In this context, when we say ‘learning objective’, we actually mean ‘focusing objective’. They help learners focus and pay attention to the information that’s targeted by the instruction.

Faria Sana and six colleagues (2020) conducted three studies also trying to answer the questions do learning objectives really work, how do they work, and how can they be improved?

First, they looked at whether it’s better to present learning objectives at the beginning of the instruction material or in between. Both methods proved to work well and led to better learning than no learning objectives. Interspersing the learning objectives throughout the text seemed to work slightly better, but the difference between the two was not significant.

This is interesting, because as Thalheimer points out in his video: If the point of the learning (or focusing) objective is to guide learners’ attention… then we might not need learning objectives at all. We can also guide learner attention in other ways. We can point out explicitly when they need to pay close attention, we can repeat things that are important, we can use signalling, and so forth (e.g., Clark & Mayer, 2016).

Thalheimer’s thesis results (1996) also suggest that pre-questions can be as powerful as learning, or focusing, objectives. In a second study, Sana et al. also looked at pre-questions. They compared traditional learning objectives (for example, “In the first part of this lesson you will learn which part of your tongue makes you taste sweetness), goals formulated as facts (“You taste sweetness with the tip of your tongue”) and as multiple choice questions (“Where on the tongue do you taste sweetness? (a) Back, (b) Front, (c) Left, (d) Right.”). The last was the most effective: Learners achieved the best results if they had to answer multiple choice questions beforehand. In the first two (ordinary and actual learning objectives), one wasn’t significantly better than the other. What was the success of the multiple choice questions? The learners couldn’t necessarily answer the questions correctly, of course, because they hadn’t yet learned the fact(s). The researchers suspect that the questions focused the learners’ attention and that searching for the right answer stimulated them to process the material more deeply.

In the third experiment, Sana and colleagues compared types of questions (multiple choice versus a short open-ended question, such as ‘Where on your tongue do you taste sweetness?’), either with or without feedback. They always checked whether the learners could apply the material (for example, the test question at the end was about what it would mean if you damaged the tip of your tongue). In this experiment, multiple choice and short open-ended questions performed equally well, but the effect diminished when the learners were subsequently given feedback (the correct answer). The researchers point out the contrast with their second study. With the correct answer in their pocket, they processed the material less deeply.

Summarised in football terms: Learning objectives score (goal!) and in combination with questions beforehand, they score even better (GOOOOAL!), but in this match feedback gets a yellow card.

What also gets a yellow card, is the idea that we need to use action verbs when writing learning (focusing) objectives. As Thalheimer explains in his video, these words aren’t salient and they don’t make a difference in a focusing objective.

Again, we repeat, the studies as discussed here are all about what Thalheimer calls ‘focusing objectives’. As instructors and designers, we need to keep in mind that there can be other reasons to use objectives and we need to clearly distinguish between objectives that we use as instructional/learning designers versus the ones we might use for learners. As instructional/learning designers, we can use instructional design objectives (these are the ones that Mager had in mind; he never meant those to be used for learners!), evaluation objectives, organisation objectives, etcetera. For learners, we can use the focusing objectives as discussed in this blog, but also performance objectives or motivation objectives.

We need to be precise. What do we mean when we say ‘learning objectives’ and what is the intended result of using an objective? As Johan Cruijff also said: “You’ll only see it when you understand it.”


Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. The classification of educational goals, Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company, Inc.

Britton, B. K., Glynn, S. M., Muth, K. D., & Penland, M. J. (1985). Instructional objectives in text: Managing the reader’s attention. Journal of Reading Behavior17(2), 101-113.

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Rothkopf, E. Z., & Billington, M. J. (1979). Goal-guided learning from text: inferring a descriptive processing model from inspection times and eye movements. Journal of educational psychology71(3), 310-327.

Rothkopf, E. Z., & Kaplan, R. (1972). Exploration of the effect of density and specificity of instructional objectives on learning from text. Journal of educational psychology63(4), 295-302.

Sana, F., Forrin, N. D., Sharma, M., Dubljevic, T., Ho, P., Jalil, E., & Kim, J. A. (2020). Optimizing the efficacy of learning objectives through pretests. Cross-disciplinary research in biology education – Life Sciences Education, 19, 43, 1-10.

Thalheimer, W. H. (1996). Information-acquisition goals: how questions produce learning through non-strategic processing (Publication No. 9631789). [Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Thalheimer, W. H. (2015). Video on Learning Objectives [Video]. https://www.worklearning.com/2015/01/29/video-on-lobjs/