Identifying and Developing Objectives

Initial Publication Date: November 13, 2009

The Importance of Learning Objectives in Economics

Because most faculty receive little training as educators, course design is traditionally relegated to what we know best- content. Such objectives are necessary for establishing the foundational knowledge to be covered throughout a course, however economics is more than facts and figures, it is a way of knowing (Siegfried et al 1991). Understanding how to think like an economist can be enhanced when complementing content objectives with learning objectives.

What is a Learning Objective?

Taxonomies of learning can be traced back to the work of Bloom (1956). This taxonomy suggests a hierarchal development of learning as students progress from knowledge to comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and finally to evaluation. In economics, Hansen (1986, 2001, 2004, and 2006) has developed a taxonomy based on proficiencies that suggest by the time students have completed the economics major they should be "effectively equipped to use their knowledge and skills" (1986: 231). In other words, they should be proficient in
  • accessing existing knowledge
  • displaying command of that knowledge
  • providing both theoretical and empirical interpretations
  • applying knowledge
  • asking pertinent and penetrating questions
  • creating new knowledge

The first proficiency represents what is commonly known as foundational knowledge and covers content objectives whereas the remaining proficiencies describe additional dimensions of learning.
learn more about each proficiency

Identifying which proficiencies will be the primary focus for a course will aid in the ensuring that the exercise specific objectives and ultimately the choice of cooperative learning structure remains aligned with course objectives.

Developing (Learning and Content) Objective Statements

Objective statements focus on student performance and on expected outcomes or products. In other words, both learning and content objectives are described in terms of what we expect students to be able to do or produce rather than how we as instructors will teach. Saunders (1998) suggests that objectives should consist of a few general statements which are in turn supported by illustrative examples which "begin with a verb that specifies observable student behavior, and illustrative verbs should have the most precise meaning possible- 'use,' 'know,' 'really know' are less precise than 'identify,' 'describe,' 'construct,' 'distinguish.' " (Saunders 1998: 100)


Objective: Enhancing problem solving skills
Identify economic components in a word problem
Describe the meaning of each component
Explain why each component is relevant or irrelevant for solving the problem
Identify steps used to solve a word problem
Objective: Linking theory and practice
Identify an economics related article
Describe key economic components contained in the article
Describe the relevant theoretical model associated with the article content
Provide evidence that links the article to specific assumptions or components of the theoretical model
Explain the expected outcome of the theoretical model
Compare and contrast outcomes described in the article with outcomes of the theoretical model

Linking Objective Statements to Hansen Proficiencies

A review of the two examples provided above suggests that each can be linked to one of Hansen's proficiencies. In the first case, the objective is to have students display command of existing knowledge by explaining key economic concepts and describing how they can be used. The second example focuses on the interpretation of existing knowledge as students are asked to explain and evaluate what economics concepts and principles are used in economic analysis published in newspapers and magazines.