Instructional objectives and learning outcomes: There is a difference

Until recently, I have used the terms “instructional objectives” and “learning outcomes” interchangeably.  Though I was aware that some educators thought there was a difference between the two, I chose to side with those who said there was none. I could not, however, have backed up my choice with anything other than a vague “I’ve read there is no difference”.

Different Kinds of Outcomes

A few weeks ago, my colleague Cindy Underhill (@cindyu) recommended an article titled “Learning outcomes in higher education” by Joanna Allan.  This paper has had a profound effect on my thinking: I no longer think of instructional objectives and learning outcomes as synonymous.  That is because, in her article, Allan describes the ‘why’ behind these terms – -meaning, she explains the motivation given theorists (whose work is associated with a term) had when proposing a particular term. Her well-written historical account of terms such as instructional objectives, behavioural objectives, expressive objectives and learning outcomes distinguishes between the purpose of–and philosophical orientation behind– the various terms. The strength of this paper is that it helped me understand the rationale connected to the use of the different words that I previously thought of as synonymous.

Below are some key ideas that I now link to two terms which, until recently, I used interchangeably:

Instructional Objectives” The word “instructional”  emphasises that the achievement of prespecified objectives are a direct consequence of instruction that the student receives. (linked to the work of Mager)

  • Mager proposes that educators not use words such as: understand, know, appreciate as these are “too slippery” (not measurable).
    • he suggests that instructional objectives should specify condition, criterion, and that word choice is very important
    • he recommends that complex tasks be broken into highly discrete and defined elements to create instructional objectives
    • brings the learner to forefront
  • Emphasis here is on what can be measured quantitatively
  • (reflected the view of people trained in psychology)

Learning Outcomes” (linked largely to the work of Eisner, 1979): “are essentially what one ends up with, intended or not, after some form of engagement” (Eisner, 1979, p. 103, Cited in Allan, 1996).

  • What the student achieves, as opposed to what the instructor plans to teach
  • Broad overarching consequences of learning (as opposed to a preconceived specific goal).
  • May be:
    • Subject specific outcomes. Similar to instructional objectives in that they relate to, or result from, the content that is taught. However, they are not expressed in the form of [discreet/reductionist] instructional objective; they do not specify condition or performance in the way that instructional objectives do.
    • Generic academic outcomes: encompass learning that occurs in an individual independent of direct teacher/student interaction, and learning that is not directly related to the pre-specified subject-specific outcomes (Allan, 1996). Individualized and not fully predictable. Transferable. Transcend discrete subjects. (related to Eisner’s notion of “personal outcomes”…but somewhat different).
      • Include: interpersonal skills, critical self-reflection, working independently, being information literate, synthesizing ideas etc



Allan, J. (1996). Learning outcomes in higher education. Studies in Higher Education 21.1: 93-108.

Next on my list to read:

Harden, R. M. (2002). Learning outcomes and instructional objectives: is there a difference?. Medical teacher, 24(2), 151-155.


Photo credit: Julian Kücklich (Flickr, Creative Commons Licensed cc by-nc-nd 2.0


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