Essential Statement for Your Course

Much of instructional design and online learning focuses on objectives which gauge student progress by measuring what students do. This is important because teachers ought to know the degree to which student mastery results from the instruction of the course. Yet, those objectives cannot get at the immeasurable benefits of learning that we hope students take from the course and transfer to their lives outside the classroom. Essential statements are where instructors articulate those big ideas which make the course meaningful for students and allow the course to live on in the minds of students long after they have forgotten many of the specific details they learned.

Essential statements work hand-in-hand with course objectives. The essential questions allow instructors to remain focused on the big important ideas of their disciplines even as the course objectives try to give a measurable shape to those big ideas. Essential statements help instructors answer the question: Why am I having students complete these objectives? While the objectives help instructors assess: How will I know that students grasped the essence of this course?

One way to think about the essential questions of a course is to ask: What do I want students to remember about the course five years from now? Students will probably not remember specific objectives, but hopefully they will remember some enduring question, such as:

  • Whose perspective matters here?
  • What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
  • How does what we measure influence how we measure?


Writing Course Objectives

Once a course has an essential statement, the instructor can start to give those big ideas a concrete, measurable shape. Objectives inject clarity into a course by putting the focus on what instructors want students to do or perform. Just delivering content is not enough; after all, how will instructors know that students really grasped the content?

One consistent element to almost all design models today is the centrality of learning objectives to activities, content, and assessment.

Measurability is a necessary attribute of a good objective. Without measurability, teachers cannot know the extent to which students have achieved the course objectives. For example, consider the following course objective: “Students will understand the causes of the American Civil War.” On an intuitive level, the intention of the objective seems clear. But, on closer inspection, what does “understand” mean? How will we know that students understand?

To gauge understanding, we will have to go a step further and ask students to do something. This will mean replacing the word “understand” with some actions that will help us measure student understanding. We could swap out understand with words such as: debate, analyze, describe, delineate, or narrate. While we cannot see inside the heads of students to know whether they understand, we can watch them debate, or assess their analysis, or parse their delineation.

One way to know whether or not your objectives are measurable is to ask yourself: can I devise an assessment to measure the degree to which students have mastered this objective?

Methods of writing objectives

ABCD method

One common method is the ABCD method for writing objectives.

  • A = Audience (Who will complete the objective? It is helpful to think about the characteristics of your students and their place in the curriculum, online students in a Freshman Experience course, for example.)
  • B = Behavior (What do you expect learners to do? For example: evaluate causes for the American Civil War.)
  • C = Condition (Under what conditions or constraints will learners perform the behavior? At the end of a unit, after practicing first, for example.)
  • D = Degree (What level equals mastery?)

Example objective: By the end of the semester (C), beginning History students (A) will be able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources (B) with close to 100% accuracy. (D)

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy (Taken from Arizona State)

When you begin creating a course, you want to design with the end in mind. The best way to approach this is to start by writing measurable, learning objectives. Effective learning objectives use action verbs to describe what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course or unit. Aligning assessments with course expectations is much easier when you have written measurable objectives from the beginning.

  1. Identify the noun, or thing you want students to learn.
    • Example: seven steps of the research process
  2. Identify the level of knowledge you want. In Bloom’s Taxonomy (Links to an external site.), there are six levels of learning. It’s important to choose the appropriate level of learning, because this directly influences the type of assessment you choose to measure your students’ learning.
    • Example: to know the seven steps of the research process (comprehension level)
  3. Select a verb that is observable to describe the behavior at the appropriate level of learning.
    • Example: describe these steps
  4. Add additional criteria to indicate how or when the outcome will be observable to add context for the student.
    • Example: describe the seven steps of the research process when writing a paper.