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Guidance on Aims and Objectives for Teaching and Learning

1. Introduction

This paper is concerned with the definition of aims and objectives for teaching and learning; that is with the prior specification of what teachers intend to teach or what it is hoped learners will learn. The paper also discusses important links between objectives and assessment.

2. Reasons for Stating Aims and Objectives

The statement of educational aims and objectives has several benefits:
To help teachers design the course - the content, the methods, and the assessment;
To communicate the educational intent of the course to students and to colleagues;
To help identify the resources needed to undertake the teaching;
To provide a basis for evaluating the course, and a basis for quality assurance.
A further reason for setting out aims and objectives is that SHEFC's Teaching Quality Assessment is made with reference to provider's own statement of aims and objectives.

3. Aims, Objectives, and Learning Outcomes

These terms are used in a technical sense and it is important for all teaching staff to be aware of their meanings. Broadly speaking, all educational purposes can be defined in one of two ways:
(a) What it is intended that the teacher will do (an aim or a teacher-driven objective);
(b) What it is intended that the student will have learnt, or will be able to do, as a result of a learning experience, (an objective or learning outcome).
In the past, objectives have often been defined in terms of the teacher's activity; ie corresponding to definition (a) above. This is no longer adequate because teaching objectives need to be defined in terms of the ultimate purpose - student learning.

There is therefore now a broad agreement that for each teaching activity there should be two types of statement of intent:

The Aim

A brief statement setting out the intention in providing the degree programme or course in terms of the scope of the subject, and the overall learning outcomes sought.
Objectives (or intended learning outcomes)
A number of specific statements setting out what it is intended the student will have learnt or be able to do as a result of the educational experience.

4. A Hierarchy of Aims and Objectives

There are a number of circumstances in which aims and objectives can be specified. These are set out in Figure 1 in the form of hierarchy in which the higher levels (eg the degree programme) should determine the nature of the aims and objectives adopted for the lower level (eg a course). Or, to put the point in another way, the achievement of higher level aims will depend on achieving lower level aims. The key question to ask is: "How will the aim and objective for this individual teaching session help achieve the overall aim and objectives of the course?"


Figure 1 Showing the relationship between aims and objectives at different levels.

The type of content specified in statements of aims and objectives will vary with the level. Objectives, particularly those concerned with academic content, will be defined in more detail at the lower levels of the hierarchy; ie at the level of the course and individual teaching session. At the level of department or degree programme, it is likely to be more appropriate to define an aim in terms of the overall scope of the subject and also in terms of the qualities which it is intended that a student in that discipline would develop on the programme.

5. Classification of Educational Objectives

Educational objectives can cover a range of different types of intended learning outcomes. The most recent documentation from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council for 1997/98 lists the following: "The acquisition of knowledge, the development of understanding and other general intellectual abilities, the development of conceptual, intellectual and subject-specific skills, the development of generic or transferable skills, and the development of values, of motivation or of attitudes".

These can be summarised as follows:

There should be an appropriate balance between the effort devoted to each of these objectives. Hence it is important that the objectives should include examples of each of the four types. As some of the conceptual and personal transferable skills may be generic it may be more appropriate to list them in the literature describing a year or a whole degree programme.

6. The Framing of Objectives at Course and Session Level

Objectives should be phrased in terms of what students will know and can do rather than what teachers intend, but there is debate about the form that these statements of outcomes should take. As a principle, they should be framed as explicitly and precisely as possible taking account of the nature of the course and the nature of the outcomes. Where the outcomes are concerned with students acquiring a simple skill or relatively straightforward knowledge then what is termed a behavioural approach may be adopted. For example, for a course in Medicine an objective could have been stated as "Understand how sound is heard", but from this statement it is unclear what precisely students are expected to know. Objectives stated as behaviours may give better guidance for students and staff. In this case, these would read: list the main structures of the human outer, middle and inner ear; explain how sound waves are transduced to nerve impulses and identify where this occurs; contrast conductive with sensorineural deafness; outline the neurological pathway between the cochlear hair cells and the auditory area of the cortex. However, these behavioural objectives, are not neccessarily equivalent in every respect to the concept of understanding. In many courses in higher education, it is difficult to capture the full range of complexity of desired student learning outcomes by having to define them in the terms of behavioural objectives and in these cases it is legitimate to use terms such as "understanding", "becoming aware of", "appreciating", "comprehending".

There are also difficulties in defining objectives in terms of academic content when students' own investigations play an important part in the process and it then may become impossible to pre-specify the subject knowledge that students will learn. To define objectives, the teacher then has to consider the overall educational purpose of the activity and the nature of the conceptual or transferable skills which it is intended should be developed.

7. Assessment and Objectives

Assessment activities should be designed so as to enable the students' achievement of all objectives to be assessed. Equally, students should not be assessed on anything which has not been specified in the objectives. Each objective does not need to be assessed separately. The implementation of this principle should not lead to a restriction in the range of objectives specified, but to the introduction of an innovative approach to the design of assessment activities.

Centre for Learning & Professional Development, University of Aberdeen

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