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Back to the Top Teaching Blog
October 18, 2017

The Hidden Power of Learning Objectives

By Meghan Everette
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    No matter what standards you use, there is a constant in every lesson: the learning objective. Objectives are the basis of what you hope to accomplish in any given lesson. A more powerful term, Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), are a specific learning goal coupled with a specific way to measure where students are in meeting that goal. SLOs can be large and meaty goals that teachers aim to meet over the course of a year of instruction, but mini-SLOs can happen each and every day in class.

    Why We Use Objectives
    There are many teachers who will tell you they write the objective on the board each day, but see no real purpose or gain. “It’s just one of those things we are told to do, so we do,” a teacher told me recently. The objective should be more than a check sheet item for teachers to satisfy administrators. In fact, many education writers like Grant Wiggins and David Didau have written about the pointless exercise. Simply writing or copying an objective means nothing to a teacher and even less to a student. So what should an objective do?

    1.     Objectives focus the purpose of your lesson and subsequent planning

    2.     Objectives give you an outcome or goal

    3.     Objectives are smaller and more digestible than a full standard

    4.     Objectives can help students understand the lesson purpose

    5.     Combined with success criteria, objectives let you know when learning has happened

    6.     Objectives set the foundation for student-led academic discussion

    Focused discussion and understanding of objectives can help students take ownership of their learning. That ownership is a key way to focus on mastery, no matter what the subject is.

    How to Write an Objective
    Objective writing shouldn’t be difficult or take a large chunk of your planning time, yet it is important to intentionally design objectives that meet your students’ learning needs. First, look at your standards and decide what you are trying to achieve in your lesson. Then look at the lesson you intend to teach and make sure that what you need to teach and the activities plan line up with the learning standard. Take a slice of the objective that students can reasonably be expected to learn in the time given. Then write your objective, which will probably sound like a baby version of the standard. Starting with “I can…” helps frame the objective in student-friendly language. A simple graphic organizer can help. It can be helpful to plan objectives in sets, just like planning for a unit or week of lessons, so that you can see the learning arc over a series of lessons.

    DO make sure the objective matches the desired student learning.

    DON’T make an objective about activities. It should be about skills and learning.

    Make a Success Criteria
    A success criteria is a companion to the learning objective. Once you have taught, how will students know that they have learned what they should from the lesson? That is the purpose of the success criteria. A great sentence frame for the success criteria is, “I will know I have learned when __________”. Not only is it important for students to know what success looks like, it is a key component for teachers. When you have a success criteria that matches your objective, you will know when students “get it.” One way to create a success criteria is to complete the work yourself. What are the steps or key features of student work you expect from students? You can list these in more “I can __________” statements for students. Some teachers even create a mini-checklist for their students.

    Talk About It
    The real magic of a learning objective and success criteria is when they are discussed before, during, and after the lesson. Having students take ownership of their own learning happens when they can talk about what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will know when they are successful. Simple talk moves and collaborative conversations can help drive the discussion. One way to ensure this happens is to ask students to discuss the objective when you start the lesson, telling what they already know and what they are confused about. The important thing is not that a teacher has planned and a teacher knows the success criteria, but that a student can talk about their learning. Check out Genia Connell’s blog post "Math Talk 101" to get ideas on discussion techniques that will work in every subject.  

    Objectives listed without intentional planning and lesson design are never going to create change. Objectives that are designed with student learning at the forefront and used to drive the why behind learning, will help students focus on their learning targets.

    No matter what standards you use, there is a constant in every lesson: the learning objective. Objectives are the basis of what you hope to accomplish in any given lesson. A more powerful term, Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), are a specific learning goal coupled with a specific way to measure where students are in meeting that goal. SLOs can be large and meaty goals that teachers aim to meet over the course of a year of instruction, but mini-SLOs can happen each and every day in class.

    Why We Use Objectives
    There are many teachers who will tell you they write the objective on the board each day, but see no real purpose or gain. “It’s just one of those things we are told to do, so we do,” a teacher told me recently. The objective should be more than a check sheet item for teachers to satisfy administrators. In fact, many education writers like Grant Wiggins and David Didau have written about the pointless exercise. Simply writing or copying an objective means nothing to a teacher and even less to a student. So what should an objective do?

    1.     Objectives focus the purpose of your lesson and subsequent planning

    2.     Objectives give you an outcome or goal

    3.     Objectives are smaller and more digestible than a full standard

    4.     Objectives can help students understand the lesson purpose

    5.     Combined with success criteria, objectives let you know when learning has happened

    6.     Objectives set the foundation for student-led academic discussion

    Focused discussion and understanding of objectives can help students take ownership of their learning. That ownership is a key way to focus on mastery, no matter what the subject is.

    How to Write an Objective
    Objective writing shouldn’t be difficult or take a large chunk of your planning time, yet it is important to intentionally design objectives that meet your students’ learning needs. First, look at your standards and decide what you are trying to achieve in your lesson. Then look at the lesson you intend to teach and make sure that what you need to teach and the activities plan line up with the learning standard. Take a slice of the objective that students can reasonably be expected to learn in the time given. Then write your objective, which will probably sound like a baby version of the standard. Starting with “I can…” helps frame the objective in student-friendly language. A simple graphic organizer can help. It can be helpful to plan objectives in sets, just like planning for a unit or week of lessons, so that you can see the learning arc over a series of lessons.

    DO make sure the objective matches the desired student learning.

    DON’T make an objective about activities. It should be about skills and learning.

    Make a Success Criteria
    A success criteria is a companion to the learning objective. Once you have taught, how will students know that they have learned what they should from the lesson? That is the purpose of the success criteria. A great sentence frame for the success criteria is, “I will know I have learned when __________”. Not only is it important for students to know what success looks like, it is a key component for teachers. When you have a success criteria that matches your objective, you will know when students “get it.” One way to create a success criteria is to complete the work yourself. What are the steps or key features of student work you expect from students? You can list these in more “I can __________” statements for students. Some teachers even create a mini-checklist for their students.

    Talk About It
    The real magic of a learning objective and success criteria is when they are discussed before, during, and after the lesson. Having students take ownership of their own learning happens when they can talk about what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will know when they are successful. Simple talk moves and collaborative conversations can help drive the discussion. One way to ensure this happens is to ask students to discuss the objective when you start the lesson, telling what they already know and what they are confused about. The important thing is not that a teacher has planned and a teacher knows the success criteria, but that a student can talk about their learning. Check out Genia Connell’s blog post "Math Talk 101" to get ideas on discussion techniques that will work in every subject.  

    Objectives listed without intentional planning and lesson design are never going to create change. Objectives that are designed with student learning at the forefront and used to drive the why behind learning, will help students focus on their learning targets.

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