Creating Learning Expectations

This is the first of three “backward design” tutorials in the following sequence:


When designing a course, instructors typically consider the books, movies, activities, and projects that they want students to complete. While these are important parts of a course, they are only the means to an end. The end is what you want your students to know and be able to do by the time they finish the course. By describing the end in a formal statement of learning expectations, you help your students—and yourself—focus on what is important in the course. Your stated learning expectations should drive all other class activities.

Learning expectations (also known as learning objectives) are succinct descriptions of what you expect students to learn in your course. Each expectation must be measurable so that you can tell whether students have met the expectation. Learning expectations typically include action verbs, such as describe, list, create, write. Ideally, they also include a standard of performance, such as how accurate or fast a student will be in performing the action described in the learning expectation.

Examples of Learning ExpectationsImage of clipboard containing a list

  • Upon completing this module, you will be able to accurately list five causes of the Civil War.
  • In a clinical setting, you will be able to identify three cultural differences that affect delivery of health care on the reservation.
  • Upon completing your fieldwork, you will be able to demonstrate with 100% accuracy two different techniques for chemical analysis of your soil samples.
  • Given a data set and description of the data collection techniques, you will be able to write a report in the format expected by one of three hydrology journals, and you will submit your report to one of the journals for publication.

What You Will Learn

By the Drawing of ruler measuring the word "learning" end of this tutorial you will be able to write at least two learning expectations that contain unambiguous verbs and are measurable.


Lesson Six - Writing Objectives

This reading is part of Virginia Tech’s Master of Arts program in Instructional Technology. Read it before proceeding.

Your Choice of Words Matters

For learning expectations that your students will see—for example, in your syllabus—write the learning expectations using the word you so that students reading the learning expectations will feel a more personal connection with your expectations of what they’ll learn.

Upon completing this lesson, you will be able to...

If you are writing learning expectations for submission to a curriculum committee, follow the committee’s standards, which might mean rewriting the learning expectation slightly to refer to a student instead of you.

Upon completing this lesson, a student will be able to...

One of the biggest problems with poorly written objectives is the choice of words used to indicate the type of performance expected. Vague verbs that are open to interpretation do not provide a clear enough indication of what the learners will actually be doing. Be specific about your instructional intent, or you leave yourself open to misinterpretation. The following chart, taken from Lesson Six - Writing Objectives, lists some common unclear words used in goals and objectives, as well as more specific, better alternatives.

Common Ambiguous Words "Better" Performance Words



Really understand



Fully appreciate

Grasp the significance of


Become familiar with

Become aware of



Have faith in


Be happy




Choose (or select)






















Activity: Write the Building Blocks of Learning Expectations

Before diving in head first to write objectives, you might find it easier to do some prep work.

Read the following two examples of learning expectations.  Decide which you think is better and why you think it is better:

  1. You will demonstrate metric measurement of length.
  2. Given a metric ruler, you will be able to measure the length of common linear objects to the nearest millimeter.

The second one is a fuller objective because it describes the conditions in which a student will demonstrate mastery of learning, it details the action a student will take to demonstrate mastery, and it describes the degree of precision expected. It makes clear to both student and instructor what needs to be done by the student to demonstrate that the skill has been mastered and the objective achieved. The first objective lacks specifics.

For a course that you are teaching, consider the course goal and then identify the following information:

In the fields below, type your answers.

Note: If you want to keep a copy of your answers, click the Show Answers button near the bottom of this page, and then print the resulting page.

Activity: Write Your Own Learning Expectations

Now, based on the characteristics you identified above, in the fields below write two learning expectations stating the performance conditions (under what circumstances the students will perform), the type of performance expected (the unambiguous verb), and the level of performance expected (the measurable part of the expectation).



Now self-assess the quality of the learning expectations you wrote.

What are the two conditions under which your students will fulfill the learning expectations?

Can you list two other conditions that you might use for additional learning expectations?

Identify one alternative verb for each verb you chose.

Decide whether the alternative verbs are more descriptive and less ambiguous than the ones you chose. If so, substitute them for your original verbs in your learning expectations above.

Are the two verbs you chose the most precise verbs to describe the performance you expect?

Are the two measurements you chose something you can realistically implement in your course using the tools and time you have available?

If not, revise your measurements, using something that you can implement.

Next Tutorial: Assessing Student Learning

Assessment is how you measure whether students have met your learning expectations. Assessing Student Learning, the next tutorial in this series, discusses assessment.

Further Reading and Activities

One way to organize content in Blackboard Learn (Bb Learn) is to use Lesson Plans, which give you aScreen shot from video showing hand on mouse place to state your learning expectations (Blackboard calls them objectives). You can make the elements of your lesson plans visible to your students or only to you. The e-Learning Center advocates sharing the objectives with your students in Bb Learn because transparency in course design clues students in to what the course will be like.

You can decide what unit of instruction—for example, a class period, a week, a unit, a module, or some other organizational chunk of course material—you want to include in a lesson.

For more on Lesson Plans in Bb Learn, watch this 5-minute video from Blackboard:


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