Assessment Primer: Goals, Objectives and Outcomes

Outcomes Pyramid

The assessment literature is full of terminology such as “mission”, “goals”, “objectives”, “outcomes”, etc. but lacking in a consensus on a precise meaning of each of these terms.  Part of the difficulty stems from changes in approaches to education – shifts from objective-based, to competency-based, to outcomes-based, etc. education have taken place over the years with various champions of each espousing the benefits of using a different point of view.  The Outcomes Pyramid shown below presents a pictorial clarification of the hierarchical relationships among several different kinds of goals, objectives, and outcomes that appear in assessment literature.


The ‘pyramid’ image is chosen to convey the fact that increasing complexity and level of specificity are encountered as one moves downward.  The pyramid structure also reinforces the notion that learning flows from the mission of the institution down to the units of instruction.


Outcomes Pyramid Definitions

Mission Statements of the University, School/College, and Program

A Mission Statement is a general, concise statement outlining the purpose guiding the practices of an institution or school/college.  Accrediting bodies expect that student learning outcomes flow from the mission statements of the institution and school/college; i.e., the school/college mission should be in harmony with the mission statement of the institution.

“How To Write Missions”


Goals of the Program (or Department)

Goals are broad, general statements of what the program, course, or activity intends to accomplish.  Goals describe broad learning outcomes and concepts (what you want students to learn) expressed in general terms (e.g., clear communication, problem-solving skills, etc.)  Goals should provide a framework for determining the more specific educational objectives of a program, and should be consistent with the mission of the program and the mission of the institution.  A single goal may have many specific subordinate learning objectives.

“How To Write Goals”



Goals and Objectives are similar in that they describe the intended purposes and expected results of teaching activities and establish the foundation for assessment.  Goals are statements about general aims or purposes of education that are broad, long-range intended outcomes and concepts; e.g., “clear communication”, “problem-solving skills”, etc.  Objectives are brief, clear statements that describe the desired learning outcomes of instruction; i.e., the specific skills, values, and attitudes students should exhibit that reflect the broader goals.

There are three types of learning objectives, which reflect different aspects of student learning:

  • Cognitive objectives: “What do you want your graduates to know?
  • Affective objectives: “What do you want your graduates to think or care about?
  • Behavioral Objectives: “What do you want your graduates to be able to do?

Objectives can also reflect different levels of learning:

  • Mastery objectives are typically concerned with the minimum performance essentials – those learning tasks/skills that must be mastered before moving on to the next level of instruction.
  • Developmental objectives are concerned with more complex learning outcomes – those learning tasks on which students can be expected to demonstrate varying degrees of progress.

Instructional Objectives describe in detail the behaviors that students will be able to perform at the conclusion of a unit of instruction such as a class, and the conditions and criteria which determine the acceptable level of performance.

What are the differences between Goals and Objectives?  Both goals and objectives use the language of outcomes – the characteristic which distinguishes goals from objectives is the level of specificity.  Goals express intended outcomes in general terms and objectives express them in specific terms.

“How To Write Objectives/Outcomes”


Learning Outcomes are statements that describe significant and essential learning that learners have achieved, and can reliably demonstrate at the end of a course or program.  Learning Outcomes identify what the learner will know and be able to do by the end of a course or program – the essential and enduring knowledge, abilities (skills) and attitudes (values, dispositions) that constitute the integrated learning needed by a graduate of a course or program.

The learning outcomes approach to education means basing program and curriculum design, content, delivery, and assessment on an analysis of the integrated knowledge, skills and values needed by both students and society.  In this outcomes-based approach to education, the ability to demonstrate learning is the key point.

What are the differences between Objectives and Outcomes?  Objectives are intended results or consequences of instruction, curricula, programs, or activities.  Outcomes are achieved results or consequences of what was learned; i.e., evidence that learning took place.  Objectives are focused on specific types of performances that students are expected to demonstrate at the end of instruction.  Objectives are often written more in terms of teaching intentions and typically indicate the subject content that the teacher(s) intends to cover.  Learning outcomes, on the other hand, are more student-centered and describe what it is that the learner should learn.

An effective set of learning outcomes statements informs and guides both the instructor and the students:

For teaching staff:  It informs:

  • the content of teaching
  • the teaching strategies you will use
  • the sorts of learning activities/tasks you set for your students
  • appropriate assessment tasks
  • course evaluation.

For students: The set of learning outcomes provides them with:

  • a solid framework to guide their studies and assist them to prepare for their assessment
  • a point of articulation with graduate attributes at course and/or university (i.e. generic) level.

Learning Outcome statements may be broken down into three main components:

  • an action word that identifies the performance to be demonstrated;
  • a learning statement that specifies what learning will be demonstrated in the performance;
  • a broad statement of the criterion or standard for acceptable performance.

For example:


(the learning)
(the conditions of the performance demonstration)
Produces documents using word processing equipment
Analyzes global and environmental factors in terms of their effects on people

Examples of Goals, Objectives, and Outcomes

Goal Objective How this objective might be reformulated as a Learning Outcome
(Geology)  To develop knowledge, understanding and skills related to the recognition and interpretation of igneous and metamorphic rocks. To explain the different magma geochemistries derived from partial melting of the mantle in different tectonic regime. Students should be able to demonstrate how magma geochemistry relates to partial melting of the mantle by contrasting the outcomes of this process in different tectonic regimes through the critical analysis of specific case studies.
(Biochemistry) To explain the biochemical basis of drug design and development. To demonstrate the application of molecular graphics to drug design. Students should be able to apply the principles underpinning the use of molecular graphics in the design of drugs to illustrate general and specific cases through a computer-based presentation.
(English)  To introduce students to modes of satiric writing in the eighteenth century. To familiarize students with a number of substantive eighteenth century texts.  Students will be trained in the close reading of language and its relation to literary form. Students should be able to analyze the relationship between the language of satire to literary form by the close examination of a selected number of eighteenth-century texts in a written essay.
(Engineering) This course introduces senior engineering students to design of concrete components of structure and foundation and the  integration of them into overall design structures. The student is able to function in teams. Functioning as a member of a team, the student will design and present a concrete structure which complies with engineering standards.
(Geology) Become acquainted with topographic maps and their usage. Use topographic maps and employ these maps to interpret the physiography and history of an area. Students should be able to

  • Locate and identify features on topographic maps by latitude and longitude and township and range.
  • Contour a topographic map and construct a topographic profile.
  • Identify major landform features on topographic maps and relate them to basic geologic processes of stream, groundwater, glacial or marine erosion and deposition.
  • Interpret geologic maps and geologic cross-sections.


More Examples of Mission, Goals, Objectives and Outcomes

An example based on material from Eastern Kentucky University Social Work program

An example based on material from California State University, Sacramento Gerontology program

An example based on material from IUPUI Mechanical Engineering which takes the step of defining Measurable Outcomes

Translating Course Goals Into Measurable Student Outcomes

Assessment can measure the extent to which course goals have been achieved, but only if those goals are measurable.  For the most part, course goals are too broad or too abstract to measure directly.  Once goals have been formalized, the next step is to translate the often abstract language of course goals into a set of concrete measurable student outcomes.



Example: Lack of specificity of Goals

Introductory Astronomy Course Goal = Students understand the seasons.

How does one measure ‘understand’? No idea! This Goal can be made more measurable by identifying specific Outcomes one would expect from a student who “understands” the seasons.

Course Outcomes =  The student can define seasons
The student can distinguish the importance of different factors such as tilt and distance.

Measurable student outcomes are specific, demonstrable characteristics – knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, interests–that will allow us to evaluate the extent to which course goals have been met.

Example: translating a course goal (in the context of dental health) into measurable student outcomes

Dental Health 101

Course Goal

Measurable Student Outcomes

The Student:

  • Understands proper dental hygiene
The Student can:

  • Identify the active ingredient in toothpaste
  • Explain why teeth should be cleaned at least twice per year
  • Describe how poor dental hygiene can lead to poor overall health

Example: showing a link between objectives and assessment.

Example: Refining a Goal into Measurable Objectives

Goal: Students will be familiar with the major theories of the discipline.

Does this goal convey any information?

  • Would a student know what was expected of his/her work?
  • Would a colleague know the focus of your department’s teaching?
  • Would an employer know what your students could do?

Refining the goal into a
measurable objective

Explanation of the process

Students will be familiar with the major theories of the discipline Objective = verb (active behaviors)
object (products, skills/performances, content/knowledge, attitudes/dispositions)Objective = (be familiar with) + (major theories of the discipline)Start with the object aspect of the objective.  Suppose five major approaches (theories) to conflict resolution are: withdrawal, smoothing, forcing, compromising, and problem solving.
Students will be familiar with withdrawal, smoothing, forcing, compromising, and problem solving Specifying what the department views as the major approaches (theories) is an improvement in the wording of the objective.
Students will be familiar with withdrawal, smoothing, forcing, compromising, and problem solving Sharpening the verb will also make it better – what does “be familiar with” imply about a student’s knowledge or skills?

Objective = (be familiar with) + (withdrawal, smoothing, forcing, compromising, …)

  • Avoid vague phrases:
    appreciate, understanding, have an awareness of, etc.
  • Use action verbs:
    generalize, produce, evaluate, etc.

Action oriented verbs make objectives more concrete

This objective might be revised into two objectives

  • Students will summarize
  • Students will choose and defend …
Objectives obtained through the revision of the original Goal:

  • Students will summarize the five major approaches to conflict resolution: withdrawal, smoothing, forcing, compromising, and problem solving
  • Students will choose and defend a conflict resolution approach appropriate for a given situation


Checklist to Review Program-Level Outcome Statements

Checklist to Review Program-Level Draft of Learning Outcome Statements
(Based on Assessing for Learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution by Maki 2004)

Outcome #1 Outcome #2 Etc.
Describes what students should represent, demonstrate, or produce?
Relies on active verbs?
Aligns with collective intentions translated into the curriculum and co-curriculum?
Maps to curriculum, co-curriculum, and educational practices?
Is collaboratively authored and collectively accepted?
Incorporates or adapts professional organizations’ outcome statements when they exist?


Can be assessed quantitatively and/or qualitatively?