A lecturer and student holding drones have a discussion in a teaching room

Aims, objectives, outcomes - what's the difference?

You have probably heard the terms learning aims, learning objectives or intended learning outcomes in conversations about teaching and learning in higher education. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but as we will see, they actually have quite specific and distinct meanings in relation to curriculum design.
In this section we will explore the meaning of these terms, and think about how they relate to the process of designing or planning programmes, modules and learning activities.

Learning aims

We can think of learning aims as concise descriptions of the overall goals or purposes of a piece of learning (a programme, a module or even an individual lecture or seminar). They are like ‘mission statements’ that encapsulate the scope and values of the offering.

When defining learning aims, it can be helpful to ask questions such as:

  • From your perspective as the educator, what is this piece of learning for? 
  • What are the main benefits it will bestow on learners? 
  • What is the programme or module trying to achieve?

The particular learning aims of your programme or module will be specific to the context of your subject, but it may be helpful to look at some examples from different disciplines.

Here are some well-defined learning aims from Imperial module descriptors:

The aim is to provide the student with the background necessary to understand static and dynamic aeroelastic phenomena on actuated aircraft wings, considered as either open or closed-loop systems, so that they are able to formulate and solve mathematical and computer models for aeroservoelastic analysis and design. (Department of Aeronautics)
This module will provide a general overview of research methods in healthcare and reinforce understanding of the importance of research for the evaluation of clinical practice. (Department of Surgery and Cancer)
To provide students with an understanding of the physics behind the structure, the dynamics, the energetics and the glow of planetary atmospheres, with the main emphasis on the terrestrial atmosphere. (Department of Physics)
This module provides a rigorous theoretical grounding for financial decision-making and techniques for investment practice. It explains the objective of financial management in publicly listed companies. (Business School)

Take a few minutes now to think about the learning aims of your own programme, module or teaching session. How would capture its key aims and values in the style of the examples above? Try writing them out, and perhaps ask a colleague for their thoughts or feedback on your learning aims.

In the next section we will look at learning objectives, and explore how these are different to learning aims and intended learning outcomes.