When reading the literature or when talking to colleagues, different terminology is sometimes used. This often creates confusion as to what the differences are between aims, objectives and learning outcomes.
The distinction between these concepts is not always clear, but useful descriptions are given by Kennedy, Hyland and Ryan in their 2007 article entitled Writing and Using Learning Outcomes: A Practical Guide.
The article is available HERE.
The aim of a module or programme is a broad general statement of teaching intention, i.e. it indicates what the teacher intends to cover in a block of learning. Aims are usually written from the teacher’s point of view to indicate the general content and direction of the module. For example, the aim of a module could be “to introduce students to the basic principles of atomic structure” or “to provide a general introduction to the history of Ireland in the twentieth century”.
The objective of a module or programme is usually a specific statement of teaching intention, i.e. it indicates one of the specific areas that the teacher intends to cover in a block of learning. For example, one of the objectives of a module could be that “students would understand the impacts and effects of behaviours and lifestyles on both the local and global environments”. (In some contexts, objectives are also referred to as goals).
Thus, the aim of a module gives the broad purpose or general teaching intention of the module, whilst the objective gives more specific information about what the teaching of the module hopes to achieve.
One of the problems caused by the use of objectives is that sometimes they are written in terms of teaching intention and other times they are written in terms of expected learning, i.e. there is confusion in the literature in terms of whether objectives belong to the teacher-centered approach or the outcome-based approach.
One of the great advantages of learning outcomes is that they are clear statements of what the students are expected to achieve and how they are expected to reliably demonstrate that achievement. Thus, learning outcomes are more precise, easier to compose and far clearer than objectives. From one perspective, learning outcomes can be considered as a sort of “common currency” that assists modules and programmes to be more transparent at both local and international level.
From another perspective, a learning outcome is a statement of how your students will benefit from the module. The definition mostly used states that learning outcomes are statements of what students should know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate after completion of a learning process (Kennedy et al, 2007).