On Learning Objectives

Fundamental aspects of assessment for learning are that students have a clear understanding of what they are trying to learn (learning objectives), how they can recognize achievement (learning outcomes), and what ‘good’ looks like (success criteria).

It’s important that we help students understand what learning you hope to achieve together, so that they can feel motivated and they are clear on the expectations. Sharing learning objectives gives students a sense of the bigger picture and helps them realize why they are learning something in the first place. It provides them with a framework to reflect on their learning by developing a language for talking about how they learn. The more students can understand their own thinking, the more they can take responsibility for their own learning. Metacognition leads to greater independence.

While most teachers are comfortable sharing learning objectives, the default model is often students simply copy them down or the teacher writes them on the board and reads them. In many cases, the sharing has become formulaic. There is little engagement in the learning process. As a result, students don’t know enough about what they are learning and can’t really articulate what they need to do in order to improve. Students become lost in a sea of learning, surrounded by content, but unable to navigate their way through it independently.

Other common problems related to sharing learning intentions include: objectives are confused with outcomes, they are too dense and so full of jargon that students don’t understand them, or conversely the objectives are too diluted and no longer have any significance. All meaning has been lost.

Another issue is frequency. If the objectives are referred to only once at the beginning of the lesson, they will be forgotten over the course of the period. Teachers need to make sure that learning objectives are activated at key moments throughout the lesson.

The following strategies offer a more engaging approach to sharing learning objectives. They tap into higher-order thinking – such as analysis, classification and evaluation.

  • Highlighting key words – Have a student read through the learning objective and pick out key words and explain their choices. The important principle here is that it is the learner, not the teacher, talking about the objective and showing their understanding. Some questions to ask: ‘How would you translate that for a much younger learner?’ or ‘What are we really trying to do today?’
  • Guessing game – Hand out a variety of learning objectives to students individually, and at the end of the lesson, have them work in groups to discuss who thinks they have the correct one and how they know.
  • Adding an extra – At the end of the lesson, see if the students can identify the extra objective that hasn’t been covered and explain how they know it’s the extra one. The challenge is increased if the objectives are only subtly different.
  • Cloze activity – Present the learning objective as a fill-in-the blank and see if the students can determine what the missing words are before the completed learning objective is revealed.
  • Simplifying the language – Ask students to collaborate to rewrite the learning objectives in a more student-friendly style. Have them compare and evaluate the suggestions.
  • Ranking the order – Pick two or three learning objectives for the lesson and ask the students to vote for the one they feel is the main priority for the lesson.

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