Learning Objectives in Medical Education

Learning objectives are the foundation of every university course. Objectives are written based on a needs assessment that has determined what students should learn in a course. To be effective, these objectives must be specific and measurable. All teaching and course evaluation should be based around these objectives. This means that students will always know exactly what is expected of them, lecturers will remain focused on these areas, and there will be no surprises on exams. Or at least that is how it all should work.

Unfortunately, many medical students find learning objectives unwieldy and unappealing. Students are often presented with vague statements about a broad topic to be covered which gives them insufficient direction for their studies. Sometimes lecturers who are given learning objectives do not actually lecture on the intended topic areas, leaving students with repetitive or confusing information.

So what exactly do effective learning objectives look like? They should specify exactly what students will know or be able to do upon completion of the learning. Instead of typical overviews such as

“This course will introduce you to opioid and non-opioid analgesics”

An example of a more appropriate learning objectives should be:

“Upon completion of this course, students will be able to describe the mechanism of action of NSAIDs as analgesics.”

The key aspect here is that it specifies exactly what the students will be capable of. This type of specific objective also makes it absolutely clear to us as students what we need to be able to do for examination purposes.

Learning objectives also need to be genuine. They should be followed by teaching and evaluation. Medicine is constantly evolving and our courses should reflect thisIf students do not trust that the learning objectives truly cover everything that they are expected to know, then all learning objectives become of little use.

When used properly, learning objectives are wonderful things. Any lecturer who has ever needed to answer the question of whether something will be on an exam should embrace learning objectives. These learning objectives also make independent study and seeking out other sources of information more straightforward for students. With specific, measurable, and genuine learning objectives, everyone wins.

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