Writing Good Objectives

If you want a PDF of this, click this link: M4WG Writing Good Objectives

An objective is a description of a performance you want learners to be able to exhibit before you consider them competent.  In other words: what should students be able to do when they are done with your course?

Clear objectives are important because they:

  1. let the students know what they’ll be able to do by the end of the course
  2. help instructors pick material to best achieve that learning goal, and
  3. give evaluators something to measure the success of their instruction.

As a student progresses, so should the objectives.

We expect more from our M2’s than our M1’s, more from our M4’s than our M3’s. Our objectives can be worded to reflect this progression using 6 different levels. At the very basic end of the spectrum, students simply memorize facts. As they progress, they start using those facts and then even make judgements about them. The six levels (of Bloom’s Taxonomy) are:

  • Knowledge: can recall facts.
  • Comprehension: understands enough to organize information, compare, contrast and state general principles.
  • Application: solves problems by using the learned material, often in using it in a new way.
  • Analysis: break knowledge down into parts and identifies motives & themes, makes inferences and generalizations, and supports with evidence.
  • Synthesis: combines information in different ways to suggest new solutions to problems.
  • Evaluation: presents and defends opinions by making judgements about the quality of information.

Bloom’s team also provided us with active verbs to use at each level. You might ask an M2 to list the drugs used in treating asthma, but you’d ask an M4 to design a treatment plan for the asthmatic patient.

List, Name, Identify, Show, Define, Recognize, Recall, State, Visualize Summarize, Explain, Interpret, Describe, Compare, Paraphrase, Differentiate, Demonstrate, Classify Solve, Illustrate, Calculate, Use, Interpret, Relate,Create Manipulate, Apply, Modify
Analyze, Organize, Deduce, Contrast, Compare, Distinguish, Discuss, Plan, Devise Design, Hypothesize, Support, Schematize, Write, Report, Justify Evaluate, Choose, Estimate, Judge, Defend, Criticize

Let’s take some example objectives from our list for M4 students:

  • List the 4 components of general anesthesia – unconsciousness, analgesia, amnesia, akinesia.
  • Identify the different types of pneumonia.

“Listing” and “identifying” are basic skills. M4 students should be able to DO SOMETHING with that information. Rewording these to higher order objectives, we get:

  • Compare and contrast the 4 components of general anesthesia – unconsciousness, analgesia, amnesia, akinesia. (comprehension or analysis)
  • Create a treatment plan for patients with pneumonia. (application)

You may ask a more junior student to list and identify, but M4 students need a deeper understanding to accomplish these higher-order tasks.

Objectives should be clear to students and evaluators.

Let’s start with some unclear objectives:

  • Understand a variety of radiologic procedures.
  • Become familiar with the indications for and complications of common ICU procedures.

How would you know when a student understood the radiologic procedure? How familiar does a student have to be with the indications? And how would you know when they reached that level? Objectives should leave little room for interpretation for the student and evaluator. It should be obvious to everyone what the student is supposed to do and when the student has successfully achieved that goal.

  • Compare and contrast the CT scan and MRI for neurologic imaging.
  • Evaluate the risks and benefits of the following ICU procedures: intubation, central line placement…

These are not only discrete events that the student and instructor can easily understand, but also are easy for an evaluator to observe and measure. Using the active verbs makes this easier.

Objectives should be measurable

Remember the third goal of objectives is that it gives evaluators something to measure.

  • Become familiar with a blood gas

How exactly would you know when the student was “familiar with” a blood gas? You can’t grade that. This is not something you can observe and therefore something you cannot measure.

  • Interpret a blood gas in the context of a patient scenario

This can easily be assessed on a test, paper case or in clinical practice. (See Appendix I for example assessments based on the Bloom level.)

ABCD’s: the components of good objectives

Objectives can be made clear by specifying the ABCD’s: audience (the student will be able to), behavior (what the student should be able to do), conditions (the conditions under which they should do it) and degree (how well they should be able to do it that we find acceptable).

For example, we should say more than “take a good history and physical.” If we specify the components:

  • audience: the M4 student
  • behavior: a history and physical
  • conditions: in the dermatology clinic
  • degree: at the level of an intern (listing the important aspects of the history of skin lesions and describing lesions using proper dermatologic terminology)

Assembling this into an objective we’d get: By the end of their rotation in Dermatology, the M4 student will be able to take a history and physical in the dermatology clinic listing the important historical aspects of dermatoses and describing lesions using proper dermatologic terminology.

Avoid teacher oriented objectives

Many of our objectives seem to be written with the instructor as the audience, not the student. For example:

  • To enable the student to diagnose and initiate care of asthma, rhinosinusitis, urticaria…
  • The student will have exposure to different procedures in the outpatient rehabilitation clinics including botox injections, baclofen pump refills, acupuncture…

The above are things that instructors need to do. These should be reworded to reflect what we want the students to do.

  • Diagnose asthma, rhinosinusitis, urticaria…
  • Initiate care of asthma, rhinosinusitis, urticaria…
  • Discuss which patients in the rehabilitation clinic would benefit from botox injections, baclofen pump refills, acupuncture…

Begin with the end in mind

One trick in formulating good objectives is to ask the question, “what do we want the student to get out of this rotation?” This way we look at bigger objectives instead of tiny details. Completing the phrase “at the end of this rotation, the student will be able to…” usually will result in a good objective.

Remember each objective is a promise to your students. By listing a particular objective, you are stating that they will have the opportunity to learn that material and then will be tested on it. So don’t make “manage a scorpion bite” an objective unless that’s something your students will get to do. Make it easier for yourself, if you can’t deliver on it – don’t list it.

Feel free to email me with any questions, criticisms, comments or improvements.


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