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.

About pat thomson

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

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  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.

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  3. Atika Lohani says:

    appreciated reading this too.

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  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.

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    • 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.

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      • Jimmy says:

        I’m looking for literature (books or scientific papers) where we can discuss how to properly construct the aim and objective, perhaps his epistemology. Thus, having better foundation, not just different opinions.

        I would greatly appreciate your guidance.

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  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!

    Like

  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.

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    • 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.

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  7. geofoodie says:

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

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  12. Man says:

    the article was pretty informative, could you please shed some light over the difference between research objectives and research questions. thank you.

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  13. Courtney says:

    Thanks for this article! It was very clear and helpful :)

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  14. Kevin says:

    Your article makes the all too common mistake of confusing objectives with activities.

    Objectives should be expressed as noun clauses, for example, a design, a breadboard prototype, a literature review, a performance improvement. These can be concrete or abstract nouns. Either was they must be SMART, specific and measurable, so it is possible to evaluate if, and to what extent, the objective has been achieved.

    Having analysed a project and identified the objectives one can then consider the activities required to realise these objective, activities expressed as verb clauses. Activities take time and can be scheduled using critical path analysis.

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    • pat thomson says:

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. Research projects don’t always produce breadboards and objectives are usually expressed as “To” do something ie to produce a breadboard. I think you’ve conflated an objective and an outcome or product.

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  15. Anon says:

    Hi Pat,

    A few questions:

    1. Could you clarify if this applies equally to writing a thesis? Or is this advice primarily for grant writing?

    2. How do the ‘Aims and Objectives’ differ from the ‘Research Questions’ in a thesis? How to avoid “basically the same things but said in different words.” if including both sections in your thesis?

    3. How to accommodate for significant shifts over the life of PhD? What if the initial Aims and Objectives are not what the thesis is about at all the moment? Should they re-written as though the original Aims and Objectives never existed? Or should this section discuss the shift in aims and objectives?

    Thanks!

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  16. Dr Jayasundara says:

    Dear All ;

    By my experience with undergraduates whose English is not native, I have worked out an easy way of understanding and formulating the aim (I give same meaning to the “General Objective”) and Objectives( or Specific Objectives) of any project. Rewrite the topic of the research with “to + verb in infinitive” and you have got the Aim (or General Objective).
    Example:
    If the topic is “An Assessment of Capabilities of Rural Dwellers for Adaptation to Climate Change” then the Aim (or General Objective – singular-) is “The Aim of This study is to assess capabilities of rural dwellers for adaptation to climate change”. It is only one!!! once you have an aim you can make it colorful by adding various specification to it like ” in Asia”
    Accordingly, The aim of this study is to assess the potential capacity of rural dwellers in the dry zone of Sri Lanka to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

    Specific objectives (or Objectives). Yes, they are several. Again It is simple;

    The Specific objectives of this study are to :
    You can list numbering…… of course not ten and not one. I advice undergraduates to have 3 or 4 as optimal.

    The things you do to achieve above aim
    list like

    Specific objectives
    Achieving the above aim it is need to reach following specific objectives:
    1.To study rural individuals, in the selected region for their social, economic, psychological and technological capacities for adaptation to climate change with emphasis on their indigenous technologies, cultural practices and lifestyles supported to survive through centuries with different climatic conditions;
    2.To recommend required policy alternatives and strategies with high level of applicability in adaptation to climate change.

    Am I OK? Was it useful?

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    • Rifat Ara Chowdhury says:

      I appreciate your guidance. My main language is not English. I am doing my final year project report and want to be clear about every single section heading so that I can put the right content inside them. Your description is concise and helpful Thank you!

      Like

  17. muchiri says:

    would i be right to look at the objectives as the parts and the AIM as the whole?

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  20. Jimmy McGee says:

    Aim: a verb

    Objective: a noun.

    Obviously objectives are the WHAT and aims are the HOW.

    I can show you an objective… I can’t show you how I “objective”.

    I can show you how to aim… I can’t show you an aim (nope, that’s a “sight”).

    Basic grammar. QED.

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    • pat thomson says:

      In a research proposal the writer is basically asked to complete the sentences, My aim is to .. My objectives are therefore to… These are both about doing something. This is the GENRE. It is about writing not grammar. It’s important not to confuse grammar with sense making. Once you can get past the verb or noun category mistake (and of course an aim can be either a noun or a verb) the process of writing aims and objectives can indeed be understood as a what and a how, but this doesn’t capture the broader and narrower focusing that also has to go on.

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  21. Fre says:

    Hi, I have been reading this blog post a few times and in general I find it very useful and this approach is what I have been using myself – there should be one overall aim for a thesis or a research paper. But in line with some of the previour commentors I’d really fove to know how to research questions come in? Is it sth like the aim taken into smaller and manageable pieces?

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  22. Ainslee H says:

    Reblogged this on Anthropology Musings of an anthro-tragic and commented:
    A clear and concise explanation – it’s certainly helped me overcome hurdles in my proposal.

    Like

  23. hebert says:

    This is more than enough i found it useful in my mini-proposal

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  24. Basil says:

    hello, can two or three hypothesis investigate one research question?

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  25. 車厘子 says:

    Hi PAT,

    Is there any word count or proportion of the aim and the objective parts ? Coz I’m now writing a dissertation that about 12000 words long. So are there any suggestion?

    Thanks a lot!
    Cherry

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    • pat thomson says:

      Most theses are between 80-100 k and each chapter between 8-10 k. So your aims and objectives will form part of one of the beginning chapters, possibly the first. You’ll also have other stuff to put in the same chapter like the rationale.

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  26. Ahmad says:

    Hi Pat, you said “The final thing to say is that aims and objectives can’t be rushed. Because they generate the research questions…”
    Now I used to think that it’s the reverse, that RQs generate A&Os.

    Like

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