Creating Learning Objectives for Courses and Modules

While course-level learning objectives specify what students should be able to do upon completion of the course, module-level learning objectives break down the course-level objectives into smaller, incremental parts. They become a useful outline for your online course.

Professor Karen Shaup on Learning Objectives

Let’s hear from Professor Karen Shaup about her experience developing course-level and module-level learning objectives for her online course. A video transcript is available for download.

Writing your course-level learning objectives

It is essential to write measurable learning objectives that clearly convey what students will be able to do and how they will think about the course topics by the end of the course. These objectives facilitate alignment for the rest of your course map.

We suggest thinking of your course-level objectives in three steps:

1 What do you most want students to remember or to apply from your course in 20 years’ time?

This could include enduring understandings or practices within your discipline, skills relevant to how practitioners in the field work, and dispositions or hopes that you have for students after completing the course.

Keep these questions in mind when determining the objectives upon which you will evaluate student learning at the end of this semester or term. Thinking about the enduring understandings implicit within your course will help you hone and refine exactly what you want to make explicit to students in your course objectives.

2 Delineate content knowledge, what students need to understand and remember, from procedural knowledge, what students need to do and/or apply.

We often start designing courses thinking about content and making lists of what students should read. However, in online courses we want to start with a clear articulation of what we want students to practice and how to apply the content they are learning.  When students have multiple opportunities to practice what it is you want them to understand and remember (the content of your course), they are more likely to learn and retain the content.

  • In your course, what will be most important for students to understand and know (content knowledge)?
  • What kinds of thinking or skills is it important for your students to be able to do or apply in your course?  Which of the follow verbs pertain to the enduring understandings you identified in step 1?
Critical Thinking Practical Thinking Creative Thinking Integrative Thinking
Assess, Audit, Catalog, Categorize, Classify, Decipher, Deduce, Derive, Determine, Diagram, Differentiate, Dissect, Distinguish, Examine, Formulate, Hypothesize, Infer, Interpret, Label, Locate, Measure, Organize
Advise, Answer, Calculate, Certify, Choose, Consult, Debate, Determine, Diagnose, Evaluate, Give evidence, Judge, Justify, Predict, Prescribe, Propose, Prove, Rank, Select, Suggest, Test
Abstract, Draw, Adapt, Envision, Amend, Experiment, Author, Fabricate, Construct, Convert, Develop, Devise, Improve, Refine, Reform, Sketch, Theorize, Transform, Discover, Write
Associate, Combine, Compare, Concept map, Connect, Contrast, Correlate, Differentiate, Integrate, Link, Relate, Synthesize

Dimensions of learning adapted from Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.

3. From the content and skills you've identified above, what would be your top three course-level learning objectives right now?

Thinking through these initial two steps helps you to draft some working learning objectives. In your individual meetings, your learning designer will work with you to further refine your objectives as well as to determine how your objectives will be met within modules.

To learn more about learning goals and objectives, visit: 

Module Learning Objectives

As Professor Karen Shaup stated in her video on page 1, once she created her course-level learning objectives, her next step was to think of the module-level learning objectives or to determine what students should learn along the way to achieving the more global, enduring objectives of the course.

Example 1

The following example is adapted from Professor Karen Shaup’s Literature and Technology (ENGL 249) online course that explores how digital technology affects reading as well as technologies of reading.

As you can see, the course-level objective focuses on the role of argument in literature. The module-level objective reflects one aspect of writing arguments. This module-level objective is narrower in scope. We also call her objectives “aligned” because when students “formulate critical responses” to a particular depiction in a course text, they are simultaneously achieving “practice developing, writing, and revising arguments about literature.”

Course-level learning objective Module-level learning objective
Develop, write, and revise arguments about literature.
Formulate critical responses to a twenty-first century depiction of technology, authenticity, and intimacy.
Example 2

The following example is adapted from Professor Sarah Stiles’s Social Entrepreneurship (SOCI 168) course, a hybrid in-person/online course that aims to expose students to fresh concepts in social change and provide them with the opportunity to work with a community partner. Similar to the previous example, the module-level objective is more focused in scope than the course-level objective, and they are aligned.

Course-level learning objective Module-level learning objective
Explain banking practices with positive social impact.
Explain what B Corps are and their pros and cons for social enterprises.

Professor Karen Shaup mentioned in her video that thinking about the module-level objectives helped her organize her online course structure. Once you have your module-level objectives, they also help you make important choices about the types of assignments, assessments, and course materials that will support your learning objectives. In the design process, we call this alignment

Below are examples illustrating the alignment between module-level objectives and assignments and activities.

The following example is adapted from Professor Kim Huisman Lubreski’s course, Sociology of the One Percent (SOCI 154). 

Module objective: By the end of this module, you should be able to explain the contradictions between the ideology of meritocracy/the American Dream and the reality of growing wealth inequality in the US.


  • Watch lecture on wealth inequality in the US.
  • Read The American Dream and the Power of Wealth by Heather Beth Johnson.

Activities and Assessment

  • Conduct an interview with a student outside of class asking the 5 questions from the book by Heather Johnson.
  • Transcribe the interview and upload it to a shared Google Doc in Canvas.
  • Write an analytical paper in which you compare and contrast the findings with the course material.

The following example is adapted from Professor Paul Merritt’s course Drugs and Human Behavior (PSYC 127).

Module objective: By the end of this module, you should be able to describe the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of caffeine and evaluate the public policy issues related to tobacco.


  • Watch the lecture on caffeine and nicotine.
  • Complete readings on cocaine, amphetamines, and other stimulants.

Activities and Assessment

  • Complete the multiple-choice quiz on physiological effects of nicotine and caffeine.
  • Participate in the discussion board about efficacy of drug regulation laws at the federal and state levels.
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Tip of the Week

Looking for ideas to get your semester started? Consider inviting new students to meet with you individually or in small groups to discuss your and their expectations for the course, or publish your Canvas course early to allow students to preview the course and meet each other. Explore ideas like these, together with your colleagues, at Digital Learning Days this week! Learn more about Digital Learning Days here.

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