Learning objectives. Why do we take something full of promise and make it boring?
I don’t know about you, but I learned how to write pretty lame objectives in grad school. They became one more box to check off.
It’s time to look at them differently.
Learning objectives are the juicy stuff! The whole object-of-the-game gold sticker you work toward. They’re road trips!
I have an embarrassing confession to make.
When I started teaching, I never told students what the learning objective was.
Why? I didn’t want to stress them out. Or make them feel as if they had failed.
Sure, I’d look at their work to see if they met the secret goal. And I’d meet with the kids who’d missed it.
And I thought I was doing them a favor.
But they were on the trip without a map! How were they supposed to learn how to navigate without a map?
It took an online art class to teach me that I was misguided in my approach. Each class had a clear objective. Which made learning easier, ’cause I knew each day’s destination, even if I fell short.
In hiding the learning objective, I’d become an overprotective parent. Mommy knows the way. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about anything.
But getting lost and still finding your way to your goal is necessary to learning how to navigate a map. And, if we’re getting deep, navigating life.
So here’s how to write a learning objective that works. One that gets your kids knowing what to aim for.
A learning objective usually starts with I can … You can always do the SWBAT (Students will be able to…) but the “I can” is easier for kids.
Follow it with a concrete skill that you can measure. Here are some examples.
- make two inferences about a character’s feelings based on their actions.
- identify the capitals of the Northeast United States by using the legend on a political map.
- measure the degrees of an acute angle.
- write a paragraph using a topic sentence and three supporting details.
- include at least five transition words in my persuasive essay.
Each names something specific that the student can prove either by writing or by telling you. The verbs are clear.
Vague? Avoid like the plague!
Avoid vague words like “learn,” “listen,” and “participate.” They can’t be proven. The student gains no new skill.
So instead of “I can learn how to add fractions with same denominator,” write, “I can add fractions with the same denominator.”
Or, put another way, your learning objective should be something that your student can do on an exit slip. That way, you know they’ve got it or they don’t have it yet.
You can’t prove “I can learn how to add fractions with the same denominator.” There’s no way to show they have or haven’t learned something. It’s too subjective.
Yes, they were present and got something out of the lesson, but you don’t know if they can or can’t add the fractions.
Learning something and doing it are different. Just as learning about the moon on a PBS special is different than looking at the sky and naming the moon’s phase.
Learning objectives are telephone poles
Running a marathon is on many bucket lists. But how crazy would it be to start day one with the goal, I can run 26.2 miles.
You’d fail, right?
Instead you’d start small, particularly if you hadn’t laced up in a while. You might say, today I can walk half a mile.” Doable, right?
The next day, you increase it. I can run to the third telephone pole and then walk half a mile.
The following day it becomes four telephone poles. Then seven.
Meeting these objectives is more sustainable than announcing I can run 26.2 miles each day and failing. In fact, with a goal like that, you’d give up after a week.
So why would we say to our students, “I can add fractions”? That’s a marathon goal. One they’ll fail for a long time.
But what if we went in this sequence instead?
- identify the denominator in a fraction.
- add unit fractions with the same denominator
- add proper fractions with the same denominator.
- name at least one equivalent fraction for a given unit fraction.
- find at least one equivalent fraction for a given proper fraction.
- add unit fractions with different denominators.
- add proper fractions with different denominators.
- identify proper fractions and improper fractions.
- convert an improper fraction to a mixed number.
- convert a mixed number to an improper fraction.
- add improper fractions with the same denominator with the sum as an improper fraction.
- add improper fractions with the same denominator with the sum as a mixed number.
You get the idea.
Like telephone poles, these learning objectives are pitstops on the road trip.
What’s your goal?
Go over those learning objectives often. Let them know where the car needs to go.
Preview objectives in the morning
When you preview the day, share the learning objectives along with the schedule. Their brains will be prepped for the day’s goals.
Preview before lesson
When you start the lesson, go over the goal again. As the lesson progresses, revisit the goal. Ask kids to turn and talk to a neighbor to share the goal.
We’re not doing this to make admin happy. Nope. We’re doing it to keep kids’ minds tuned in to the why of the lesson. (We don’t plan for road trips to make the police officers happy. We do it because we want to get to our destination.)
Review after lesson
When the lesson’s over, ask students to rate their mastery.
- Thumbs up ~ I can do this so well, I could teach it to someone!
- Thumbs to the side ~ I pretty much have this, but I don’t think I could teach it to someone yet. I may need more practice
- Thumbs down ~ I don’t have this yet. I need to go over this with a teacher again.
During the lesson
You can get feedback during the lesson, to see how students are doing. (Beginning of the year? Students are not comfortable with being vulnerable? Have them close their eyes and give the thumb signal.)
Before dismissal, repeat the day’s goals and have the kids rate themselves. This serves four purposes:
- Their brain gets reinforcement on the goals.
- You can adjust upcoming lessons.
- They start trusting and supporting each other for taking risks.
- When they see their feedback affects your teaching, they’ll realize their voice matters.
Sometimes you’ll get a kid who gives themselves a thumbs up when you know that’s not true. No worries. It might take a while, but they’ll eventually figure out the system.
Once you’ve mastered learning objectives, you can take up a notch — the why.
Why are we learning this? How’s it going to help you in your life?
Career Cards to the rescue!
Give each child an index card. Have them write their name a dream career, and a little sketch. This should only take a few minutes.
Then collect the cards. Pull them out when you’re going over a lesson objective.
Let’s say you have a child that wants to be a soccer player. Relate the goal to their dream.
Today’s goal is ‘I can measure an obtuse angle using a protractor.’ Let’s imagine you are a soccer player like Ashley. Your coach tells you to practice kicking the ball at a 110 degree angle so that you get better at scoring goals. Being able to meet this objective will make you a better player. And? You’ll stand a better chance of getting on the team you want.
As any teacher worth her soy latte can guess, this is magic on so many levels! Suddenly the lesson is all about their life. Their dream!
They’re listening and learning on a much higher plane. (Plus they’re all really hoping you’ll pick their career card.)
If a child changes their mind about a career (which will happen all the time), no worries! Give them another index card and return the original. (This is why you want to keep it simple.)
As an added bonus, you can also use these cards to call on kids. Imagine their delight when you say “Dr. Jenkins, you may line up. Ms. Holmes, congrats on winning MVP this year — you may line up.”
They’ll be walking on air.
Now It’s Your Turn!
Tell us in the comments below:
- What do you do to make learning objectives work for your kids?
- OR … What strategy above will you try?
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