Is there a difference between the terms “learning outcomes”, “goals”, and “objectives”?
In reality, these terms are often used interchangeably by educators. We all know what we are talking about when we use these terms, whether we are talking about them in terms of an individual class or an entire departmental curriculum. Although the differences between “goals” and “objectives” are relatively slight, there is in fact an important difference between those terms and “learning outcomes”:
A “goal” is the general result or achievement toward which effort is directed. It implies that you might not get there, as these are only the results you intend to get. (ex. “To gain an understanding of basic composition principals.”)
An “objective” is the specific result or achievement toward which effort is directed. Like “goals”, it also implies that you might not get there, as these are only the results you intend to get. (ex. “To become familiar with the principals of line, shape, form, contrast, and color in artwork.”)
An “outcome”, on the other hand, is something that follows from an action. It states that you will get there and that there will be evidence of learning that took place. It also outlines the means by which students will achieve the learning. (ex. “Students will demonstrate effective use of the compositional principals of artwork, both graphic and aesthetic, in the creation of a studio project and/or a written research project.”
An “outcome” will also make evident what exactly will be assessed. This is why creating a learning outcome can be so helpful when figuring out what to grade and how to grade it. A well-written learning outcome for a course or a project will initiate the seamless “threading” process that leads a teacher from the outcome to the assignment to the critique to the grading of the work produced.
Please note that both “goals” and “objectives” are usually written with the passive voice. “Outcomes”, on the other hand, are written in the active voice. This difference is clear in the above examples. Verbs like “interpret”, “identify”, “present”, “design”, “analyze”, “apply”, “illustrate”, “explain”, “demonstrate”, and “create” are all very useful when creating a learning outcome statement.
For more information on this subject, the University of Connecticut has published an excellent Assessment Primer that covers these differences in depth.