SMART Objectives

By Rhonda Gregory, Director of Distributed Education

Objectives are like Goals

Have you ever considered that the process of developing a course can be likened to the process of goal setting? As individuals, we often set goals for ourselves, such as losing weight, getting in shape, or saving money to buy the latest gadget. We may or may not formalize the process of goal setting in our daily lives, but we work through this process of making a decision to do something, then we figure out a way to make that something happen.

Goal setting happens all the time in business and industry, too. People in sales have target goals (or quotas) to reach each quarter. Marketing campaigns target specific returns for the new advertisements they contrive. Corporations set benchmarks, and later they report on their progress against those original targets.

In a way, designing a course follows a similar pattern. Faculty determine what information needs to be taught and plan how to best deliver that educational content to their students. This is as natural to educators as breathing. But what we don’t always do is take time to set SMART learning goals for our learners.

Objectives are for the Students

Often, we put together a course based on what we want the students to learn, and our course objectives sound that way. As a result, students have no practical use for course objectives because a) they don’t understand them and b) they don’t know how they relate to what they have to actually do. But what if we changed the way we write our course objectives? Instead of telling students what they have to know, let’s tell them what they are expected to do. This is a very different focus that gives students a real goal to work towards. The SMART* model can help us do this.

Objectives should be SMARTSMART = Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Relevant, and Time-Bound

S = Specific

Effective course objectives should be written with specificity whenever possible. This helps students understand what exactly is expected of them. However, course outcomes at the highest level may be more broadly encompassing in some respects. For example, in a technology course that I teach, one of the course outcomes is to:

Develop technological skills to improve and enhance the teaching and learning process in your field of study.

A student will know they are going to develop their tech skills in teaching and learning, but may still be wondering exactly how that will play out. I’ve written this outcome using broad language to allow students with different majors to apply the goal to their respective disciplines. Furthermore, this objective is also supported by two more specific and measurable statements, as you’ll see next.

M = Measurable

Objectives need to be written with the end in mind. Use action verbs to describe what you want students to be able to do after completing your course or unit. When you write your objectives using action words, you are telling students what they will do with the knowledge they are going to learn. A good tool to help you write actionable, measurable objectives at different level of Bloom’s Taxonomy is available on Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching webpage, A Model of Learning Objectives (opens in new window). Arizona State University also has a good article on writing measurable learning objectives (opens in new window). Continuing my technology course example, I have written the following subordinate objectives below my course outcome:

Develop technological skills to improve and enhance the teaching and learning process in your field of study.

  1. Evaluate and explain advantages, disadvantages, and uses of technologies currently available to professionals in your field.
  2. Create a personal repertoire of appropriate technology tools specific to and appropriate for your teaching and learning in your discipline.
  3. Identify an area of need or a problem in your organization where technology education can improve and/or solve a problem.
  4. Demonstrate an ability to successfully apply technology in the process of education related to your discipline.

A = Achievable/Attainable

Good course design includes an analysis of your learners. When you consider students’ backgrounds, experiences, prior knowledge, skills, interests, and personal goals and behaviors, you will be better at writing objectives that are realistic and achievable to those students. According to Mager (1997), instructional objectives should contain three elements: performance, conditions, and criterion.

The performance component describes the behavior that learners are expected to perform (the “S” in specific). Conditions provide the context or circumstances under which the performance will be carried out. For example, “Using PowerPoint, create a presentation to explain and illustrate the important elements of poetic symbolism.” Finally, criteria are the principles or standards by which the task will be judged. Providing criteria is an element often missing from course objectives. By defining the criteria for your objectives, you should bear in mind what is realistic for your students and your course. It’s up to you what you consider to be the desired or appropriate level of performance (Virginia Tech, 2003, opens in new window).

R = Relevant (Results Focused)

Often, “R” stands for relevance when dealing with marketing plans or business goals. However, the application to education is a bit different here. True, course objectives should be consistent with the purpose of the course. Whenever possible, they should also be results focused. Just like being attainable, the objectives should clearly focus on the end result.

T = Time-Bound

Students may look at a list of course objectives on the first day of class and feel overwhelmed. We can preempt that emotion by stating the times in which different objectives will be achieved. Times can be explained in in the form of specific dates, weeks, or points in the semester. Time-bound may also describe the conditions under which some performances will be assessed. Here are a few phrases to consider as examples:

  • By December 10th
  • By mid-term
  • By the end of this course
  • Within 2 hours
  • After completing X, be able to Y within 2 weeks

We deal with time-bound situations all the time, both professionally and personally. We have deadlines, time lines, and time limits. By communicating these time-bound expectations within your objectives, we give a clearer picture to the learners about what they need to work towards.


Clear course objectives are specific, measurable, achievable, results focused, and time-bound. You get the idea. I’ll bet you feel smarter already.

*The SMART model was originally published in 1981 by George T. Doran in Management Review.