Posted on 26-Jan-15

Recently, a member asked, "what is the difference between a learning objective and an outcome, and can these two terms be used interchangeably?" Well, the short answer is, yes, because they are both the same. However, government, education, and industry use a variety of different terms to describe this component of a course; so it is likely that you have encountered several terms that appear to have the same meaning. In this article I will address the differences in instructional objective terminology, some tips on creating meaningful objectives, and how it all relates to the ANSI/IACET Standard.

You have heard them called many things—instructional objectives, outcomes, goals, and even targets. In my experience as a student and instructional designer, objectives can be categorized into two types—terminal and enabling. A terminal objective states the overall purpose, or goal of the course. Usually written in general terms, the terminal objective is what the student will learn or be expected to do after attending the course. Here is an example of a terminal objective (commonly called the GOAL):

Upon completion of this course, you will be able to bake a cake.

An enabling objective directly supports the terminal objective but is more specific. An enabling objective contains the details on what the learner will be expected to do and can also contain the criteria by which the performance will be evaluated. Enabling objectives are also known as objectives or outcomes. Here is an example of several enabling objectives (also called an OUTCOME):

Upon completion of this module (or lesson), you will be able to:

-  Measure dry ingredients listed on the recipe card

-  Select a cake pan ideal for the recipe

-  Operate a hand mixer

The enabling objectives are tied closely to the organization of the lessons within the course and specifically detail the performance to be demonstrated. ANSI/IACET Standard Category 5: Learning Outcomes states that learning outcomes should contain four characteristics: clear, specific, and measurable, and that reflect what learners will achieve in each learning event. Also, objectives should be written based on the identified needs.

Regardless of the terminology, it is important to understand that enabling objectives should be clear, specific, and measureable. ANSI/IACET Standard Category 5: Learning Outcomes, provides the guidance necessary to ensure your course materials meet the IACET criteria.

To answer the question posed by our member—learning objectives and outcomes are both enabling objectives and the terms can be used interchangeably. This really is just a matter of choosing a terminology and standardizing it for use in your organization. Call them Instructional Targets if you wish, but know that they are referred to as Learning Outcomes in the ANSI/IACET Standard.

If you would like to further explore this area of instructional design, I recommend the book, Preparing Instructional Objectives, by Robert Mager. Additionally, Annex 34 of the ANSI/IACET 1-2013 Standard contains an overview of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a critical resource to help frame your objectives so they are observable and measurable.

Alan Hoover, Principal Consultant, EAI Learning, Inc.


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