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I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Want Students to Learn? Don’t Just Tell Them What You Are Teaching (The Importance of Learning Objectives)

Learning Objectives are a Classroom Game Changer.

Learning Objectives are a Classroom Game Changer.

“Life is not a matter of chance... it is a matter of choice.” ― Ka

Should we leave our students' learning up to chance? The answer seems simple enough right? But its application isn’t automatic. It is a conscious choice we must make as educators.

I have a confession to make. I have been a high school teacher for 13 years and this is the first year that I started writing down and consciously going over the learning objectives at the beginning of every class with my chemistry students. I mean, I always told my students what they were about to learn each day, and I even remember using the required SWBAT (Students Will Be Able To) format in the lesson plans I submitted to the administration weekly when I taught science in Chicago Public Schools. However, I did not ever consider or realize that simply telling my students what I was about to teach wasn’t enough.

Now I know that “just saying it” is not enough.

Objectives are not the Day’s Agenda

I most definitely have been guilty of mislabeling the day’s agenda for learning objectives. I’ve seen many really good teachers do it. We meant well. We just did not realize at the time, that the activities we led and students did were the learning medium, and not the learning outcomes. They were the means and not the ends… 

Objectives are the ends though, and as such should be identified and written down before the unit is taught. Backwards design/planning promotes writing the summative assessment before the unit is taught. Doing this is crucial to being able to accurately identify all of the unit objectives students need to learn and makes the learning process more meaningful. All the teacher has to do is to go through the test questions and write actionable objectives that cover the test content. This is different from “teaching to the test,” because when I go through the objective writing process I am not focusing on students being able to answer every question. Rather, I look for the big ideas, understandings, and skills and mold them into daily objectives. And, if the students can “do” the objectives well, they can “do” the test well.

Objectives Need to Be Clear

I do not beat myself up over not realizing the purpose of objectives earlier. I always did my best, tried my hardest, and cared a lot about my students. I taught them well then. I do it better now. In fact, I include the agenda and the objectives on the same page of my SMART Notebook lesson plan to differentiate between the two and as a reminder to discuss each before the main lesson activity begins. I believe that having the goals and the plan to reach these goals on the same screen is a great way of showing students what it will take for them to be successful and what route we will all take together to get there.

So, how can this be done effectively? I go over the objectives after the bell ringer activity with students every day. I want them to have a clear understanding of the objectives so I explain them. If time allows, I reiterate and reinforce them at end of direct instruction. I write down all of the learning goals on the second presentation slide when I use flipped classroom note taking. In fact, I started adding objectives to all of my presentations. They should not be a secret. After all, goals and teacher clarity figure very high on the Hattie ranking of influences on student achievement.

Objectives Need to Be Deliberate

“What I hear, I forget; What I see, I remember; What I do, I understand.”  - Attributed to Confucius

Life is multimodal and so is learning. No single learning modality can be used effectively on a consistent basis. The ever-popular in the K-12 community VARK (visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic) learning styles inventory is continually being proven inaccurate and the idea that each person has a preferred learning modality is not supported by numerous university studies. In fact, it is flat out debunked, as the individual’s self-reported learning preference is not reflected in his actual performance. You can read more about this here. Or here. Or here.

Therefore, rather than focus on any one approach, I find it important to target this information in a multitude of ways. I write the learning objectives down so students can see them. I read them, so they can hear them, and tell students to write them down. Because I write the objectives as action statements, students can check with themselves if they can do the actions after the lesson is over. In addition, I created a universal review strategy that utilizes the learning objectives as a part of preparation for tests. You can download the Focus Method Review for free here.

I suggest that all teachers reading this post require all their students to write them down as a crucial part of their notes. Make them do it. Twist their arms if you have to. But do it only if you care enough, because it will do your students a world of good.

Objectives are the Ultimate Measure of Success

I believe that the learning objectives are one of the most powerful ways for students to measure their own success in any class. More specifically, objectives can be used by students to self-assess their learning. This is the reason why I write them as action steps – sentences that begin with words such as: “Explain”, “Calculate”, “Compare and Contrast” etc. – that are “calls to action.” At the beginning of every class I tell students that if they are able to perform these actions they can be sure that they have learned what was intended.

I leverage the objectives to be such a success tool by:

1.     Writing, reading, and explaining them to students.

2.     Having the students write them down as part of their notes.

3.     Reviewing them at the end of class.

4.     Including the learning objectives review in each unit review. See Focus Method Review.

The End does justify the Means

I enjoy teaching a lot. I especially love the times when after a prolonged struggle trying to grasp an abstract chemistry concept, my students finally have that light bulb moment and things start making sense for them. That is truly an awesome feeling for a teacher, especially after committing a lot of time, thought, and effort into teaching such a topic. However, as I am sitting in my home office right now, I wonder if knowing what I know now before and using this knowledge could have helped; somehow streamlined the learning process for my students.

I do not claim that by using the learning objectives I can simplify every tough concept in chemistry, but I do think that by using them I can help students grasp concepts more efficiently and on a deeper level. I have to be honest and throw caution to the wind here though:

Not all students will buy into the idea of objectives. No matter how many times I explain to them how important they are and how big of a game changer the awareness of the learning goals can be for them, some students do not write them down. Their teenage brains simply don’t allow them to believe they can do better than they are already doing, regardless of how well they are doing. I will never let that detract me though. Not ever. I can’t.

I hope you will reach the same inevitable conclusion Mr/Ms ___________________________ (fill in your name). Once signed, only the pain of death (or retirement) can relieve you from this contract.


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