aims and objectives – what’s the difference?

You’re ready, you’re aimed, and now you have to fire off the objectives. But you’re a bit confused. What”s the difference between the two?

An aims-objectives confusion might arise when you are writing thesis proposal and the introductory thesis chapter. It’s always an issue in research bids. The what’s-the-difference question can have you going around in ever smaller unproductive circles if you can’t figure out a way to differentiate between the two things. And the difference is something I’ve recently been asked about, so I’ve decided to post something of an answer.

Dictionaries are only vaguely helpful when thinking about aims and objectives. My desk dictionary says that an aim is to do with giving direction. An aim is “something intended or desired to be obtained by one’s efforts”. On the other hand an objective is to do with achieving an object, it’s about actions, “pertaining to that whose delineation is known”. Now who actually speaks like this? The fact that these definitions are offered in this very formal language doesn’t help clarify matters. But, once past the antiquated expression, you might discern that the difference between the two is somehow related to a hope or ambition (aim) versus a material action (objective). Or we might say – and it is what is commonly said about aims and objectives – the aim is the what of the research, and the objective is the how.

So taking this what-how as a kind of loose and sloppy differentiation between the two, the rough rule of thumb with aims and objectives is generally that:

(1) The aim is about what you hope to do, your overall intention in the project. It signals what and/or where you aspire to be by the end. It’s what you want to know. It is the point of doing the research. An aim is therefore generally broad. It is ambitious, but not beyond possibility.

The convention is that an aim is usually written using an infinitive verb – that is, it’s a to + action. So aims often start something like.. My aim in this project isto map, to develop, to design, to track, to generate, to theorise, to build … Sometimes in the humanities and social sciences we have aims which attempt to acknowledge the inevitable partiality of what we do, so we aim ‘to investigate, to understand, and to explore… ‘ But lots of project reviewers and supervisors prefer to see something less tentative than this – they want something much less ambivalent, something more like to synthesise, to catalogue, to challenge, to critically interrogate ….

(2) The objectives, and there are usually more than one, are the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim. This is where you make the project tangible by saying how you are going to go about it.

Objectives are often expressed through active sentences. So, objectives often start something like In order to achieve this aim, I willcollect, construct, produce, test, trial, measure, document, pilot, deconstruct, analyse… Objectives are often presented as a (1) (2) (3) formatted list – this makes visible the sequence of big steps in the project. The list of objectives spells out what you actually and really will do to get to the point of it all.

You have to make the objectives relatively precise. Having a bunch of vague statements isn’t very helpful – so ‘I will investigate’ or ‘I will explore’ for example aren’t particularly useful ways to think about the research objectives. How will you know when an investigation has ended? How will you draw boundaries around an exploration? In thinking about the answer to these questions, you are likely to come up with the actual objectives.

Objectives have to be practical, do-able and achievable. Research reviewers generally look to see if the time and money available for the research will genuinely allow the researcher to achieve their objectives. They also look to see if the objectives are possible, actually research-able.

Because the objectives also act as project milestones, it’s helpful to express them as things that are able to be completed – so for example scoping an archive of materials will have an end point which may then lead on to a next stage/objective. Even if objectives are to occur simultaneously, rather than one after the other, it is important to be clear about what the end point of each step/objective will be, and how it will help achieve the aim.

What not to do

It’s really helpful to think about what can go wrong with aims and objectives. There are some predictable problems that you want to avoid when writing them. These are some common aims-objectives issues:

• There are too many aims. One or two is usually enough. (I might stretch to three for other people’s projects if pushed, but I usually have only one for my own projects.)

• Aims and objectives waffle around, they don’t get to the point and the reader doesn’t have a clue what is actually intended and will be done – aims and objectives need to be concise and economically expressed.

• Aims and objectives don’t connect – the steps that are to be taken don’t match up with the overall intention.

• The aims and the objectives are not differentiated, they are basically the same things but said in different words.

• The objectives are a detailed laundry list rather than a set of stages in the research.

• The objectives don’t stack up with the research methods – in other words they are either not do-able, or what is to be done won’t achieve the desired results.

The final thing to say is that aims and objectives can’t be rushed. Because they generate the research questions and underpin the research design, sorting the aims and objectives are a crucial early stage in planning a research project. Aims and objectives are a foundation on which the entire project is constructed, so they need to be sturdy and durable.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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12 Responses to aims and objectives – what’s the difference?

  1. Pingback: aims and objectives - what's the difference? | ...

  2. I agree with you about the nature of the difference between aims and objectives and also about the fact that dictionaries are frustratingly vague about it.

    I also agree that it is very helpful if you can match aims and objectives.

    In research-grant writing I suggest that the matching can be done by stating the aims as things that we need to know. Then the objectives can be stated as the phases of the research project that will tell us the things we need to know. I recommend that aims and objectives are matched, that there are about four of each and that the y are presented in the same order.

  3. Atika Lohani says:

    appreciated reading this too.

  4. Hi Pat, Is there much of a difference between aims and hypothesis? Is it just a difference in phrasing and presenting the intention of the thesis??
    Thanks.

    • pat thomson says:

      Yes a lot of difference. A hypothesis can signal a particulate stance on knowledge, and/ or a particular research design. With a hypothesis you set out to test, answer yes/no or prove something. Most often used in RCTs or lab based research or other experimental work.

  5. Greg says:

    Pat,
    Thanks very much for your blog. It contains a lot of very helpful information.

    I am just starting out on my PhD and was interested to read your definitions of Aims and Objectives.

    I was actually quite surprised to read that the objectives seem to present a high level plan rather than a set of goals as is the common usage.

    You have said “This is where you make the project tangible by saying how you are going to go about it” whereas a common usage might be more like “something that one’s efforts or actions are intended to attain or accomplish” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/objective).

    This info will help me write my thesis…. even if it is non-intuitive!

  6. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Like Andrew, I work with people who are writing grant applications. Two pet peeves that I would add to your “What not to do” list are:

    1. There is no aim at all. This can take two forms. The most common is to have aims, but fail to express them clearly and succinctly up front. They are buried on page two, page five, page 23 and page 41. The less common problem is where there is no aim at all. That is, the whole project description is so vague, or so dense, that there doesn’t seem to be any point at all. This generally occurs in first drafts, or where there have been many, many drafts, with different ideas introduced in each iteration.

    2. There are additional ‘bonus’ aims as little ‘easter eggs’ for the reader to find on their journey through your project description. I see this a lot. Three or four aims are expressed, clearly and succinctly, at the start of the project description. Then, on page five, I find “…with the aim of…”. On page eight, there is “Our overall aim is to…”. These bonus aims often don’t match at all with the PR aims on the front page. Once they have been dug out and dusted off, they often provide a much clearer picture of what the investigators are trying to do.

    • I share your peeves. I think (pure supposition on the basis of no data!) that both these faults are a result of the “start writing and hope that a useful document will emerge from the forest of words” approach to writing.
      I used to encourage academics to take this approach simply because it’s so hard to get them to start writing a grant application. Now I think that it has the drawback that it produces a kind of ‘learned helplessness’ in which the writer surrenders the responsibility for producing a good document to a reviewer.

  7. geofoodie says:

    Excellent post. Very helpful and one I will certainly pass on to my students.

  8. Pingback: aims and objectives – what’s the difference? | Writing on Writing

  9. Pingback: What are aims and objectives? | Researching Politics and International Relations

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