Learning Objectives

Initial Publication Date: July 30, 2010

In an undergraduate research experience, students not only learn content, they also learn how knowledge is constructed in a particular discipline. For planning purposes, it is as important to establish learning objectives as content ones. Clearly stated learning objectives help in the identification of appropriate teaching and assessment and can guide students in managing their studies (Saunders, 1998).

Undergraduate Research in Biology

What is a Learning Objective?

Bloom (1956) suggests a six-stage hierarchy of cognitive competencies:

  • Knowledge - Students can collect and restate information.
  • Comprehension- Students can interpret and understand information.
  • Application- Students can apply information to solve problems.
  • Analysis - Students can organize and analyze information.
  • Synthesis - Students can create information from information.
  • Evaluation - Students can compare and assess information and ideas.

In an update to Bloom, Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) argue that students should be able to:

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create

Undergraduate research experiences that engage students in the scientific method require and develop skills that can be mapped to Bloom's taxonomy and require students to do the tasks that Anderson and Krathwohl suggest they should be able to. And rather than offering isolated experiences with each of the steps of the scientific method, their relationships to one another become transparent, furthering one's understanding of what it means to "do science." Before going headfirst into an undergraduate research experience, you want to consider how directly and deeply you want students engaged in each step of the research process. This will help you determine where you place an undergraduate research experience in your curriculum or course, or if you do undergraduate research outside of the classroom instead (perhaps as part of a summer research experience).

As an example, if your key learning objectives are related to synthesis and evaluation, you may want the culminating project in your class to be a research paper and, if time is limited, you may want to supply students with the background literature and data for the project rather ask them to collect it themselves. If you have an opportunity to supervise the project as an independent study, though, you may have time to work on each of the six competencies more intensely and can involve your student just as seriously in tasks like reviewing the literature and collecting data as in evaluating evidence.

Krathwohl et al (1964) suggests a hierarchy of affective competencies, and you may consider forming some affective learning objectives as well. These competencies are:

  • Receiving - Students can notice and tolerate ideas.
  • Responding - Students can respond to ideas by investing in them in some way.
  • Valuing - Students can demonstrate to others that they value some ideas.
  • Organizing- Students can connect that value to existing ones.
  • Characterizing- Students' actions are consistent with the internalized values.

Developing Learning and Content Objectives

Here are some tips for writing cognitive learning objectives from the Higher Education Academy.