Curriculum design: writing course objectives

Conceptualising and writing aims and objectives is critical to effective curriculum design and student learning. It is relatively common for people to have some difficulty differentiating aims and objectives when designing a course. The principal difference between aims and objectives is that:

  • aims represent the broad goal of your course;
  • objectives are the steps the students need to take to get there.

Well written aims and objectives serve three related purposes:

  • they indicate the content (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) that will be covered and the level of cognitive engagement that students will need to demonstrate for success;
  • they allow the program team to ensure that program level objectives are systematically and incrementally developed; and
  • they are the first step in ensuring alignment between aims, outcomes, assessment, and the learning environment.

Course objectives must be linked to one or more of the seven University graduate qualities. Some courses focus intently on developing one graduate quality, while others may develop more than one.

Course objectives must also align with program objectives. Therefore, an important first step in developing good objectives for your course is to think about where your course fits into the overall program. Ensuring that course objectives become increasingly sophisticated and that your students’ learning is scaffolded as they progress through the program is important. For example, learning outcomes for a first-year course will likely focus on building a broad understanding, or focus on understanding threshold concepts. A course undertaken by a student in the second year of their program might focus on analysis or application of knowledge whereas a third-year course might expect students to evaluate or review knowledge, understanding or skills.

The alignment of course objective, assessment, and graduate quality is an intellectual exercise and is often done collaboratively between the Program Director, Course Coordinator, and TIU Academic Developer. 

Writing course aims

The aims of a course are broad statements of its purpose or intent. The aims encompass the purpose and philosophy of the course, specifying its overall direction and content. They let students know what you will be teaching them over a study period and what they may learn by taking the course. Course aims are typically identified in relation to the broad program aims as well as their relationship to the aims of other courses within the program. Writing course aims requires you to understand the role played by your course in the overall development of graduate qualities across the program. Aims should be stated in no more than two brief sentences. Both aims and objectives should be written using active voice and from the perspective of student achievement. The use of active voice is important because it highlights the role and responsibility that students have to their own learning.

Writing course objectives

The purpose of course objectives is to be explicit about what it is we expect students to achieve and what we need students to demonstrate as evidence of achieving the course aims. Course objectives may be written with respect to knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes. For an objective to be claimed it must be assessed, therefore there must be an alignment between objectives and assessments. Typically, it is easier to assess knowledge and skills than attitudes.

Course objectives should be written from the perspective of student learning (i.e., be student centred), as reflected in the stem used in the Course Statement in PCMS as well as your Course Outline: “On completion of this course students should be able to…”.

Here is an example of a course objective that is not written from the perspective of student learning, and how it can be rewritten as a student-centred course objective:  

Objective inappropriately written (i.e., what the academic or course will do)

Re-written as student-centred course objective (i.e., what the student will do)

Introduce major components of a computer and operating system.

Describe the major components of a computer and operating system.


Course objectives should be written in a way that specifies:

  • The verb at the appropriate level of understanding or of performance intended;
  • The topic content the verb is meant to address; and
  • The context of the content discipline in which the verb is to be deployed (Biggs & Tang, 2011, p. 125).

Select the verb

The verb should be an action verb which results in observable behaviour. Examples of action verbs include: analyse, apply, assess, compare, compile, compute, create, critique, design, discuss, explain, plan, predict, prepare, rate, revise, select, use, utilise.

Verbs that call for implicit, implied, or innate learning behaviour should be avoided as they cannot be observed or assessed. Examples include: know, be(come) aware of, appreciate, learn, understand, be(come) familiar with.

Ideally, course objectives should also be succinct and easy to understand; this means that we’d want to avoid unnecessary words and verbosity. Here is an example:

Verbose course objective

Succinct course objective

Demonstrate the ability to describe the major components of a computer and operating system.


Describe the major components of a computer and operating system.



To help you select an appropriate verb that communicates the level of learning you expect students to demonstrate, you might use a taxonomy of learning behaviour such as:

Identify the focus content and context

The course objective should identify the content that the students will use to demonstrate their learning.

Context helps to define and limit the scope of the learning that students are expected to demonstrate. It also supports authenticity of assessment as it highlights links with the professional conditions or situations where the knowledge and skills will be applicable. For example:





the major components

of a computer and operating system


communication knowledge

to identify common practical contexts in organisations


a range of tools and techniques that support creativity and innovation

in problem solving and decision making


The final step is to put the three elements together and ensure that the objective makes sense to your students, who are beginners in the area. This means that for first-year students you may need to remove some discipline-specific language and primarily use plain English. For students in second- and third-year courses, discipline-specific language can be incorporated that students are familiar with from previous core courses in the program.

Further assistance

The TIU Online Module: Learning Design offers helpful advice and resources on curriculum design, including how to write course objectives. If you would like further advice or feedback, we recommend you book a consult with an Academic Developer to discuss your proposed course aims and objectives.