Semantics matter a great deal. Especially when communities share words that may be interpreted and used in very different ways. This is very true of the words goal, objective, and outcome in context of higher education. Each are often used interchangeably. Institutions and authors will set definitions only to have them contradicted numerous times over in a dozen new publications. Finding myself in the middle of this conversation, I am feeling lost at an attempts to shape understandings of these three words even for myself. So here I play.
I always like returning to the dictionary when struggling with a word, so lets start out there:
- goal (n): the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.
- objective (n): a thing aimed at or sought; a goal.
- outcome (n): a final product or end result; consequence; issue.
Right off the bat, there is clear overlap:
An outcome and a goal are explicitly focused on the same target: the end. However the outcome is the final product in and of itself while a goal is the final product yet to be obtained. An objective is essentially a goal, and therefore also focused on the end target. Yet the definition places slightly more emphasis on an intentionality (aiming at) and/or a pursuit (something sought) of the goal.
The goal then is the intended product yet to be obtained, the objective is the intentional pursuit of the goal, and the outcome is the final product once obtained!… Or so it seems through my interpretive lens.
I start back at basic dictionary definitions because application of these words in context of education seems to get things muddled up, as though the dictionary can say one thing but in practice the words can mean quite another.
Lets pick apart The Council of Ontario Universities definitions then to see how they match up. They say:
- “Goals provide an overview for students, instructors, program/course evaluators of what the program or course aid to accomplish.
- Learning objectives are an expression of what the instructor intends that the student should have learned or achieved by the end of the program or course.
- Learning outcomes are what the student has actually learned or achieved in the program or course”
Is the goal the intended product yet to be obtained? Sure. My interpretation of the COU definition is that goals summarize what the program or course sets out to accomplish.
Is the objective is the intentional pursuit of the goal? From the instructors perspective it is. Here objective has been interpreted as more of an instructor thing – it is an expression of the instructor’s intentions towards pursuit of the final product. What they will do or are currently doing in pursuit of seeing the final product within the classroom.
Is the outcome is the final product once obtained? Yes! What students have actually learned is the consequence of the educational experience.
Lets try another example, this time from McMaster University where it is stated that:
A learning objective is a statement of what students will be able to do when they have completed the learning. Learning objectives aid you as the instructor to determine the appropriate learning experience and method of assessment for your students.
Here, the word objective is used repeatedly to describe what the students will be able to do (the intended product yet to be obtained) as well as the appropriate strategies (i.e. methods/experiences) for obtaining them (the intentional pursuit of the goal). There is no mention of the final product once obtained, and no use of the words outcome or goal.
Ok, one more just for fun, this time from Guelph University:
Learning objectives (sometimes referred to as intended learning outcomes or course-specific goals) are clear statements that describe the competences that students should possess upon completion of a course (Simon and Taylor, 2009; Anderson et al., 2001; Harder, 2002; Kennedy et al., 2006). Effective learning objectives state what students should know and be able to demonstrate, as well as the depth of learning that is expected.
This is an example of all three words being used synonymously. Here the emphasis is placed more upon the final product once obtained (after a course has been completed).
All three examples above may do little for clarity and do much more to reemphasize, once again, the difficulty arising from the muddled use of these three words. I am interested though in how the dictionary definitions might be a helpful starting point for clarifying these differences further. The goal as the intended product yet to be obtained, the objective as the intentional pursuit of the goal, and the outcome as final product actually obtained seems to make sense to me.
If anything, the dictionary definitions offer a starting point for discussion – What is the difference between a goal, an objective, and an outcome to you? Does it align more with the dictionary definitions or with some of the examples of words in practice?
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