Learning objectives: the basics

Bullseye

A combination of my ongoing mentoring of an M.Ed. student, a request by a commenter (Ian Guest) and some broken links on the newly-restored teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk has spurred me to write this post.

As a teacher, I’ve never really known a world before learning objectives. It was certainly something that was expected of me during my PGCE at Durham University and from then on in my teaching career. And, to be fair, it’s fairly obvious why. If a learner knows what’s expected of them, and then can ascertain whether they’ve achieved a learning goal, then they’ve been successful.

However, I’ve seen learning objectives used really badly. I’ve seen a ‘learning objective’ that ran something like:

To know who the Romans were.

How would a learner or teacher know whether any type of meaningful learning has taken place with this as a learning objective?! A far better one would be:

To list 3 ways the Romans have influenced life in the 21st century.

This is SMART – i.e.

  • Specific – ‘list 3 ways’ tells students exactly what to expect.
  • Measurable – both students and the teacher can tell whether the learning objective has been attained.
  • Achievable – the learning objective is open-ended enough to allow for effective differentiation.
  • Realistic – this particular learning objective doesn’t really require any prior learning.
  • Time-related – students need to have achieved this learning objective by the end of the lesson.

Even better practice would be to use ALL, MOST and SOME with learning objectives. This allows for even more differentiation and sets and explicit baseline for all learners.

To use the above example again:

ALL students should: list 3 ways the Romans have influenced life in the 21st century.

MOST students should: decide which Roman innovation has been most profound.

SOME students should: explain how Roman innovations have changed/evolved over the last 2,000 years.

It’s only after the learning objectives have been formulated that lesson activities and resources should be prepared. After all, if the activities and resources aren’t focused on learning, what are they focused upon?

Do you have a view or some advice on learning objectives? Share it in the comments below! 🙂

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23 thoughts on “Learning objectives: the basics

  1. Its amazing how varied the quality of learning objectives are in schools.

    I’m considering stripping Learning and Teaching right down to its basics and reviewing the use of objectives across my school. In saying this, I have been planning on adding the additional twist of ‘All – Most – Some’ into the mix in order to place emphasis on meeting the needs of cohorts within a class.

    Open ended activities can also be differentiated even further via the notion of ‘Must – Should – Could’ and therefore linking the objectives and the activities together. From experience they compliment each other – ie: the ‘SOME’ (more able students) may use the ‘COULD’ aspect of an open ended activity to help to guide their thinking within a task. This aspect of differentiation would certainly encourage ‘outstanding’ for purposes of an OFSTED observation (if you pull it off) – but more importantly than them bafoons – guide the more able to achieve to their potential.

    Thoughts????

    Jamie

  2. I am very much on the fence when it comes to learning objectives. As a fairly recently trained teacher I always had to have them on the board/clearly on display at some point towards the start of the lesson whilst in my placement schools.

    As an MFL teacher I struggle with the idea of having sentences in English as I strive to have a classroom full of target language use, and I will not destroy that in order to jump through regulatory hoops. Saying that, there are some amazing ways to get pupils speaking in the target language and discussing learning objectives: eg.what they are going to be doing that day (use of the future tense), and remembering what they did last lesson (past tense). This has to be developed as a routine and the language involved can be developed as pupils get more used to the structure and words involved in setting objectives.

    What annoys me about setting objectives is that it gives the game away! I do not always want pupils to know that they will be doing a particular topic that lesson – I know exactly what they will be doing, but it again encourages them to speak and guess what they will be doing, and creating a reason for spontaneous discussion.

    Also, I wouldnt want to scare pupils by allowing them to realise that they will be looking at a grammar point. Initially it is easier to introduce something like that implicitly, and by the time you get round to a more explicit development of it they feel comfortable as they already know that they can use it and all that is left to find out is the nitty gritty of how it works.

    I understand that most classrooms are not like MFL classrooms and it is 0f complete relevance for pupils to know what they are doing and how they are going to get there, but I wonder if it would be better to have weekly or topic learning objective, rather than lesson learning objectives?

    As I work in the independent sector I can breath a sigh of relief as I do not have to jump through this particular hoop, however even I can see the benefit of my pupils knowing the path we are about to take together. I just dont want to point out all of the wonderful monuments we will be seeing on the way – Id rather they be in awe of them when they walk past them themselves.

    • Thanks for your comment, Samantha. It’s a shame that you think of learning objectives as a ‘hoop to jump through’ rather than as a useful teaching and learning tool.

      There’s no reason why learning objectives have to given right at the start of the lesson and, as you say, you could have learning objectives that spanned more than one lesson.

      Remember as well that learning objectives (on the whole) flag up *skills* rather than content. You might want to read my follow-up blog post about learning objectives (when I publish it!)

    • Samantha, being an MFL teacher as well. I do agree with your comment. Setting objectives tend to give the game away. I have been trained to set objectives and it certainly helps to plan your lesson however when I was at school, teachers would not tell us or write the objective on the board and I would enjoy discovering the lesson as it went along. I think the plenary to check if students have met the objective is very important. Very interesting post which got me thinking, thank you.

      • Samantha/Alice,

        Could you give me an example where setting learning objectives at the start of the lesson would cause problems or ‘give the game’ away in MFL?

  3. But shouldn’t the learning objective be motivating too? You want engagement and I think your initial learning objective did that. Discover is a much more exciting word than list and I think that using non-knowledge based verbs would make for better words to use in LOs.

    • Thanks for your input. As I’m going to demonstate in a follow-up post, the trigger words (as you suggest) are critical. You can link these explicitly not only to National Curriculum levels but to Bloom’s Taxonomy. :-)

      • Doug – you got us thinking with your original post (we are sitting across the other side of the world as an SMT of a British school in El Salvador and you managed to divert us from our work on the CIS Accreditation One-Year Report) and we had a really good discussion on Learning Objectives (or Learning Intentions as we call them). It has caused me to rethink this issue.
        Looking forward to your future posts on this, thanks for getting us to have a really good discussion at this end.

  4. learning objectives are important, without knowing where we are at or where we are going is there much point to what we are learning.
    I sometimes dont always state the Lo at the start of my lessons as we may start with a story to hopefully engage and inspire, but once I have finished the story I link that to the objective and bigger picture otherwise I would feel as though i was baybysitting or entertaining students.

  5. Because I do a lot of work with teachers and mapping their curricula, I think objectives are VERY important and I like that there was mention of them being specific AND measurable. These are not hoops to jump through, these are target skills for helping students understand content. Additionally, good objectives/skill statements help to inform and align appropriate assessment practices. If you don’t want to “reveal” the objective for fear of “giving the game away,” then don’t. Those skills are a road map for you to stay on the journey you intended, not necessarily a check off list for student use. Also, if I can add one more thing, it is important, vitally important, for like teachers (grade levels/content areas) to have discussions around this and have a set prioritized curriculum. Besides the obvious benefits for children, it also benefits teachers to be conversational and collaborative about what they do in their classrooms. It doesn’t mean that the WAY something is taught must be the same from classroom to classroom, but the WHAT and the HOW are exactly the same. The fact that this is being discussed at all is fantastic. Many teachers (particularly new teachers) are accustomed only to Curriculum Practice decisions. What you’re discussing here is all about Curriculum Design, a much more thought-provoking and metacognitive activity to determine what kids should know and be able to do! Kudos!

    • Thanks Mike – I absolutely agree about the difference between the *way* and the *what* something is taught. Teachers should teach to their strengths but students need equity of provision.

  6. I agree. I can’t imagine not using learning objectives. I like the SMART acronym, and the all, many, some (I learned this as: all must, many should, and some could).

    While I use objectives to plan my lessons and units, I don’t share them with students. We use questions instead, following Christine Counsell’s ideas on historical inquiry and the essential questions of Grant Wiggins (http://www.authenticeducation.org/bigideas/article.lasso?artId=53). I find that students struggle to internalize objectives, but instantly respond to a question. I guess it is the way we are made?

    • Hi Richard. Good points and something I’ll be dealing with in a follow-up post. I usually frame my lesson titles as questions – e.g. in the example above it might be ‘Who were the Romans?’

  7. I think the acronym should be smarta. The A being ‘active’, as in engaged learning. (or smarte!) Then that would help choose active verbs like ‘evaluate’ ‘create’ etc. These types of verbs help you create engaged activities for your learners

  8. We used WALT & WILF in my last school.

    We Are Learning Today was the old fashioned objective.

    What I’m Looking For was more of a success criteria, it could have been a smart target like you listed above, or in Maths it could have been an example solution showing best practice.

    • WALT and WILF are in the Academy’s official lesson plan. WALT, however, stands for ‘Why Am I Learning This?’ and WILF = ‘What I’m Looking For’ (broken down into ALL, MOST and SOME students…)

      • why am i learning this is exceptionally powerful for students getting this right enables us a teachers to provide an meaningful and purposeful lesson. However i can imagine getting authentic walts in all lessons must be challening

  9. Why would objective give away the learning. It is possible to have enquiry based learning and effective Learning objective. Remember the brain works best when it knows what it has to do. Correctly written you can have both.

  10. I really like;
    Content
    What am I learning?
    Process
    How I am learning it?
    Benefits
    Why I am learning this?
    Without learners understanding the importance of the learning objective or intention you run the risk of them become disengaged from the start.

    My worry with all, most, some is that it creates a feeling of “well I have achieved “all”, why bother stretching myself” though I do use these myself and they create a great conversation point for differentiation.

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