Chemical Engineering Education, 31(3), 178-179 (1997).


Richard M. Felder
Rebecca Brent

Student A: "Buffo's first test is coming up in a week. I haven't had him before--can you just plug into formulas on his exams or does he make you do derivations and stuff?"

Student B: "It's tough to predict--last fall most of his questions were straight substitution but a couple of times he threw in things I never saw in the lectures."

Student C: "Yeah, and if you ask him what you're responsible for on the test he just gets mad and gives you a sermon on how bad your attitude is--we had a 600-page textbook and according to Buffo we were supposed to know everything in it."

Student A:"Forget that-no time. I'll just go through the homework problems and hope it's enough."

You can often hear conversations like that in the student lounge, and if you step across the hall to the faculty lounge you'll hear their counterparts.

Professor X: "All these students can do is memorize--give them a problem that makes them think a little and they're helpless."

Professor Y: "I don't know how most of them got past their first year. The average on my last test was 47 and some of them went to the department head to complain that I was testing them on things I never taught them, even though the chapter we just covered gives them everything they needed to know."

Professor Z: "It's this whole spoiled generation--they want the grades but don't want to work for them!"

Things are clearly not going quite the way either group would like. Many students believe that their primary task in a course is to guess what their professors want them to know, and if they guess wrong they resent the professors for being unreasonably demanding, tricky, or obscure. Professors then conclude that the students are unmotivated, lazy, or just plain dumb.

There is another way things can go. Suppose you give your students a detailed outline of the kinds of problems you would be calling on them to solve, including some that require real understanding, and then ask them to solve such problems on homework assignments and tests. Since you told them what you expected them to do and gave them practice in doing it, many or most of them will end up being able to do it--which is to say, they will have learned what you wanted them to know. Some professors might regard this process as "spoon-feeding" or "coddling." It is neither. It is successful teaching.

Instructional Objectives

An effective way to prepare students for the imminent possibility of having to think is by giving them instructional objectives, statements of specific observable actions that the students should be able to perform if they have mastered the course material. An instructional objective has one of the following stems:

where *** is a phrase that begins with an action verb (e.g., list, calculate, estimate, describe, explain, predict, model, optimize,…). The more specific the task, the more likely it is that the students will learn to complete it.

Here are some examples of phrases that might follow the stem of an instructional objective, grouped in six categories according to the levels of thinking they require.

  1. Knowledge (repeating from memory): list [the first ten alkanes]; identify [five key provisions of the Clean Air Act]; summarize [the procedure for calibrating a gas chromatograph].

  2. Comprehension (demonstrating understanding of terms and concepts): explain [in your own words the concept of vapor pressure]; describe [how a flash evaporator separates components of a liquid mixture]; interpret [the output from an ASPEN flowsheet simulation].

  3. Application (applying learned information to solve a problem): apply [the mechanical energy balance equation to estimate the pressure drop in a process line]; calculate [the probability that two sample means will differ by more than 5%]; solve [the compressibility factor equation of state for P, T, or v from given values of the other two].

  4. Analysis (breaking things down into their elements, formulating theoretical explanations or mathematical or logical models for observed phenomena): derive [Poiseuille's law for laminar Newtonian flow from a force balance]; explain [why we feel warm in 70oF air and cold in 70oF water]; classify [a problem solution in terms of the steps of Polya's problem-solving model].

  5. Synthesis (creating something, combining elements in novel ways): formulate [a model-based alternative to the PID controller design presented in Wednesday's lecture]; design [an experiment to determine the effect of agitator speed on mixing efficiency in a stirred tank]; create [a homework problem involving material we covered in class this week].

  6. Evaluation (choosing from among alternatives and justifying the choice using specified criteria): determine [which of the given heat exchanger configurations is better, and explain your reasoning]; optimize [the given methanol production process design]; select [from among available options for expanding production capacity, and justify your choice].

The six given categories are the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives [1]. The last three categories--synthesis, analysis, and evaluation--are often referred to as Bloom's higher level thinking skills.

Why Bother?

Well formulated instructional objectives are more than just an advance warning system for your students. They can help you to prepare your lecture and assignment schedules and to identify and possibly delete course material that the students can do little with but memorize and repeat. They also facilitate construction of in-class activities, out-of-class assignments, and tests: you simply ask the students to do what your objectives say they should be able to do. A set of objectives prepared by an experienced instructor can be invaluable to someone about to teach the course for the first time, and can help instructors of subsequent courses know what they should expect their students to have learned previously. If objectives are assembled for every course in a curriculum, a departmental review committee can easily identify both unwanted duplication and gaps in topical coverage, and the collected set makes a very impressive display for accreditation visitors.

Tips on Writing Objectives

Gronlund [4] is an excellent source of information about formulating and using instructional objectives, and Stice [5] provides examples of their use in engineering education.

Formulating detailed instructional objectives for a course or even for a single topic in a course is not nearly as easy as simply listing the course topics in a syllabus. The effort is worthwhile, though. When we have asked alumni of our teaching workshops which of the instructional methods we discussed they found most useful, instructional objectives ranked second only to cooperative learning. Many professors testified that once they formulated objectives for a course--sometimes one they had taught for years--they changed the course dramatically to one that was both more interesting and more challenging to the students and more enjoyable for them to teach.


  1. B.S. Bloom, Taxonomy of educational objectives. 1. Cognitive domain. New York, Longman, 1984.
  2. R.M. Felder, "On Creating Creative Engineers," Engr. Education, 77, 222 (1987).
  3. R. Brent and R.M. Felder, "Writing Assignments--Pathways to Connections, Clarity, Creativity," College Teaching, 40(2), 43-47 (1992).
  4. N.E. Gronlund, How to write and use instructional objectives (4th ed.) New York, Macmillan, 1991.
  5. J.E. Stice, "A first step toward improved teaching," Engineering Education, 66(5), 394 (1976).

Return to list of columns
Return to main page