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Aligning Objectives, Content, and Assessment



As someone who has hit a curb more times than I would care to admit, I have first-hand experience driving a vehicle that pulls away from the intended steering direction because the wheels are out of alignment. Just like wheels on a vehicle, the components that make up an online course must also be aligned. Teachers can help steer students towards success by ensuring alignment exists between a course’s objectives, content, and assessments.

Outlining learning objectives can serve to set expectations and hold both students and teachers accountable for their participation in a course. It is important to note that teachers and students view learning objectives from different perspectives. Teachers construct objectives based on the content they intend to teach. Students, on the other hand, prioritize their approach not on the content, but on the assessments (Biggs, 1999). McLoughlin (2001) puts it this way, “…students learn what they think they will be assessed on, and so assessment defines the learning outcomes.” For this reason, it is necessary that alignment between objectives, content, and assessments exist. Alignment is crucial, especially in an online course where students’ learning can be highly dependent on self-motivation (Thinakaran & Ali, 2016).

In Practice

As an instructional designer, I frequently come across objectives that begin with “Students will learn…” or “Students will understand…” While these may be valid goals, consider how one would measure whether or not a student has learned or understands something. Perhaps students demonstrate their understanding by explaining a topic, solving a problem, or designing a plan. The action word within the learning objective should be measurable, that is, “Students will explain…”, “Students will solve…”, or “Students will design…”

In discussing learning objectives, it is necessary to note the distinction between course-level and module-level objectives. Course-level objectives may be broad, giving a bigger picture of what students should be able to accomplish upon completing the course. Module-level objectives list specific skills that will support students’ attainment of course-level objectives. Consider the following example from the Standards from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 6th Edition.

Course-level Objective
Module Objectives
Note the use of measurable action words and the relationship between the module-level and course-level objectives.
Upon completion of this course, learners will be able to apply the rules of punctuation.
  1. Learners will write sentences that correctly use commas, semicolons, and periods.
  2. Learners will use apostrophes when, and only when, needed.
  3. Learners will use double and single quotation marks correctly in quoted material.

In addition to alignment between course-level and module-level objectives, the content within a course must align with the objectives provided. Content in a distance learning course might present in the form of textbook readings, journal articles, instructor-narrated slide presentations, or instructional videos. Check that there is supporting content offered for each of the skills required to meet the stated objectives. Continuing with the learning objective example above, supporting content might be the punctuation chapter of a writing and style guide.

An assessment that is aligned to the objectives should require students to demonstrate a skill. Posting to a discussion board, writing a paper, selecting between options on a multiple-choice quiz, or creating a project might all be used to determine students’ proficiency with the skills stated in the learning objectives. To assess the course and module objectives in the given example, a teacher may require students submit evidence of their writing that makes use of commas, semicolons, periods, apostrophes (if applicable), and quotations.

Whether developing a course from the beginning, or revising an existing course, ensuring alignment between objectives, content, and assessment is imperative to the teaching and learning processes. Just as a car needs proper wheel alignment to move in the intended direction, teachers and students can achieve their desired outcomes when the content and assessments are aligned to the objectives.

Additional Resources


Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

McLoughlin, C. (2001). Inclusivity and alignment: Principles of pedagogy, task and assessment design for effective cross‐cultural online learning. Distance Education, 22 (1). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/0158791010220102

Standards from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 6th Edition. Quality Matters. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/rubric-standards/higher-ed-rubric

Thinakaran, R. & Ali, R. (2016). An Empirical Study: Learning Programming Using eLearning. In: Luaran, J., Sardi, J., Aziz, A., & Alias, N. (Eds.), Envisioning the Future of Online Learning. Singapore: Springer.

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