Learning Objectives in Higher Education

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.     Albert Einstein

Learning is a cognitive activity. According to the Psychology Dictionary, cognition encompasses “the mental processes in gaining knowledge and comprehension.”

In the 1950’s, the University of Chicago’s Benjamin Bloom invented a cognitive taxonomy which was embraced by American educators. Revised in 2001 by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl, the taxonomy became more dynamic, reflecting the interactivity of contemporary education contexts. The list has six categories. It moves from the simplest form of cognition, knowledge/remembering, to the most complex, synthesis/evaluation/creating.*

For educators, Bloom provided a scientific way to categorize learning. If educators could connect Bloom’s taxonomy to teaching and learning, they would have a much more sophisticated way of measuring instructional and student accomplishment.

At the same time that Bloom was creating his taxonomy, the idea of writing formal learning objectives in education was gaining traction. Bernard Bull does a great job blogging on the history of learning objectives   Learning objectives are statements that describe an act that can be measured. A learning objective always includes a verb and a specific goal to be achieved, showing learning through performance. Typical objectives assume “the student will be able to”:

  • Solve one-variable equations.
  • Describe the importance of audience in public speaking.
  • Compare the strategies of Lee and Grant during the Civil War.

K-12 uses cognitive categories and learning objectives to frame teaching, student content, and test questions. The core of the Common Core involves cognitive taxonomy and learning outcomes.

Learning objectives and their measurement are very concrete. They focus on cognitive growth in the present. So there is a contradiction when calls for accountability and job training require higher education institutions to develop learning objectives.

Colleges have traditionally provided students with a broad education meant to resonate in the future. And, they have set as their goals helping students become better people, responsible citizens in one way or another. The recent news about university responsibility in judging behaviors such as rapes on campus is rooted in this type of higher education mission.

We expect college graduates to be prepared for dealing with life outside their majors.We need to preserve the cultivation of this type of learning in higher education. Learning objectives may be reasonable and helpful in some curricula, but they are not the answer to creating a higher education environment that helps students succeed in life as well as work. We cannot allow learning objectives advocates to make learning all about what you can assess, what you can “see” now.

We need to resist the push in higher education to make the learning that can easily be measured the heart of 21st century education. We need to find ways to emphasize and reward learning that “can’t be counted” as much as that which “can be counted.”


Bloom’s Original/Revised Description
Knowledge/Remembering Recall facts and basic concepts.
Comprehension/Understanding Connect concepts through interpretation and organization.
Application/Applying Solve problems using acquired knowledge.
Analysis/Analyzing Use evidence, knowledge and data to draw conclusions, infer, and conclude.
Synthesis/Evaluating Create a plan or product based on elaborated ideas/Present opinions based on criteria.
Evaluation/Creating Assess based on criteria/Present new ideas or solutions by innovative organization of evidence