Goals and Objectives: What Are We Aiming For?

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In my work, I come across aims, goals and objectives all the time. You would think by now that I would have figured out what these words actually mean. But alas, today I got mired in the mud and went down the rabbit hole, and decided that these words are only as useful as the extent to which they are clearly defined in the context they are used. Here’s a brief travelogue of my journey there and back again.

From a strictly English language perspective, there is really very little difference between aim, goal and objective. Aim is the only one of the three that can be either a noun or a verb; the other two are nouns.

The most common word is goal, and aim and objective are usually used in more formal writing. Generally, though, an objective is considered to be more specific than a goal (e.g., Our goal is to improve health care for children. Our objective is to provide 10,000 children with vaccines).

In casual conversation, most people would use goal for both general and specific things: My goal is to lose weight OR my goal is to lose 20 pounds by the summer.

In business, aims relate to the end results, but goals and objectives help you achieve these results. Goals are abstract ideas, while objectives are more tangible and concrete.

An aim is a purpose or desired outcome – a vision (e.g., to become a successful entrepreneur).

A goal is a specific statement of intent – a target or destination (e.g, increase profits by 24 percent within one year)

Objectives are the actions needed to arrive at a goal – creating a road map or action plan (e.g., sending letters to prospective employers, obtaining a qualification).

It would seem there is a similar hierarchy in education, at least as far as writing curriculum goes: aims, goals and objectives (AGO) is the progression from larger ideas to smaller instructional components.

In this context, aims are general statements that provide direction or intent to educational action. They include terms like learn, know, understand, appreciate, and are not directly measurable (e.g. Students will understand and become proficient at identifying the different types of spoken English).

Goals are statements of educational intention which are more specific than aims, but they may still encompass an entire program, subject area, or multiple grade levels. They may use amorphous language or more specific behavioural terms (e.g., Students will be able to identify and use American slang terms and phrases).

Objectives in curriculum writing are usually specific statements of educational intention which delineate either general or specific outcomes. There are different types: behavioural, holistic, non-behavioural, problem-solving, expressive. According to this website, most educational objectives are written in behavioural terms using observable verbiage that can be divided into specific domains – cognitive (head), affective (heart), and physical (hand). The author offers an amusing example: Cognitive – Students will identify and list 5 slang terms they have heard from their peers. Affective – Students will choose 3 of the most offensive slang terms from a list developed by the entire class. Physical – Students will create expressive gestures to go with their favourite slang terms.

That was cute. And then I came across this attempt at clarity:

“You aim to accomplish a goal in order to achieve your objectives.”

Not really helpful. At all.

Moving on, another source presents aims and objectives as specific types of goals:

An aim is an ultimate goal, which the individual or the entity strives to achieve. It describes what is to be achieved and is not time-bound or measurable.

An objective is a specific goal of an individual or company. It describes how the aim is to be achieved and is both time-bound and measurable.

Seems clear enough, until a different article on the same website defines a goal as a “lifelong aim” and an objective as a “specific milestone.” Objectives are “precise, measurable, time-based actions that assist in achieving a goal.”

Confusing as that is, the common ground is that objectives are the means, and the goal or the aim is the end.

This hierarchy of specificity between goals and objectives is generally carried over into health and health research, at least in the US. An internship program defines a goal as a “big-picture statement exhibiting relevance to a declared mission or purpose, [which is] non-specific and non-measurable.” Objectives, they say, follow the SMART criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Measures are articulated for each objective. This goal-objective hierarchy extends to the CDC.

The Health and Community Workforce in Australia advises that developing goals and objectives is an important first step in developing a project plan. Consistent with the US references, goals and objectives are hierarchical, where a goal is a broad, long-term change the project seeks to achieve, and objectives are more specific and immediate. The SMART acronym is also used here to define objectives. This source also adds a third level, strategies, which are the steps taken to achieve the objective. Strategies can be further broken down into actions or tasks to be completed.

Now for some Canadian context:

CIHR’s Project Grant website defines the following for grant writers:

  • The goal states the purpose of the project, and what the project is ultimately expected to achieve.
  • The objectives clearly define the proposed lines of inquiry and/or activities required to meet the goal.
  • The proposed project outputs (i.e., the anticipated results of the project) are clearly described and aligned to the objectives.

If you will forgive the dig: because it doesn’t seem to be in CIHR’s nature to be straightforward or consistent, in their Guidebook for New Principal Investigators, they suggest writing a research plan based on “a General Objective and Specific Aims.”  

Now I feel less embarrassed by my confusion.

So while the business and education worlds talk about aims sitting at the top of the hierarchy, followed by goals and objectives, in health research (at least in Canada) the concept of an aim seems somewhat … aimless. At the very least, the term is confusing and inconsistently applied. Maybe it’s best to leave aim as a verb, since that remains its unique feature among the words in question. (Yes, technically task and output have been verbified, but let’s not make things any harder than they need to be, shall we?)

Personally, I like the hierarchy of goals (non-measurable), objectives (measurable), and strategies or tasks (itemized milestones). I’m going to try that and see how it goes. But remember, if you’re writing a CIHR grant, you have the option of calling your goal your objective and your objectives your specific aims. Clear as mud?

This isn’t even jargon. These are everyday English words that are being applied in a variety of different contexts. The moral of the story is that it never hurts to clarify a term you are choosing to use in a very specific way. Because even if you manage to get it straight in your head what you mean, your reader or reviewer might be left aimlessly wandering and trying to catch up, or missing the mark entirely.

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