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Why Objectives Matter: Strategies for Creating Clear Learning Goals

Years ago, teachers in my district were told that a required instructional expectation included a posted daily mastery objective. At the time, I remember some resistance from certain colleagues who could not see the point. One proudly announced his intention to never do such a thing, while others went through the motions without really believing in the process. In fact, one math classroom I walked by daily had the same objective posted for months, and eventually it was replaced by what I hope was not the teacher’s idea of a true learning objective: “Students will be able to solve math problems.” We often fall short in both creating effective objectives and communicating their importance to students. Simply put, a good objective makes learning transparent for students and ensures they understand not just what they are doing, but why it matters. It is up to us to create effective and relevant objectives, and some simple tips make the process a lot more rewarding for all involved.

No Ed Jargon, Ever

My teaching career has occurred mainly in high school settings, but I now work with all grade levels. Recently, I read a posted objective in a third grade language arts class that went as follows: “I will deconstruct a non-fiction paragraph and extract the main idea from the text.” While I perfectly understood the objective, I doubt many children in the class had the same level of comprehension. When we share a learning target with our classes, we should aim to make sure that the language is kid-friendly and accessible. In other words, it is a whole lot easier for children to understand that they will “read a non-fiction paragraph and look for the author’s main idea.” Then, it is up to the teacher to share this objective with the class at the start of the day and to make sure everyone is clear on the goal so that the framing of the lesson has some much-needed clarity.

Tiny, Adorable, Bite-Sized Pieces

As teachers, we tend to think in the long term. After all, we typically plan units months in advance, and we are in a constant struggle to stay organized and to execute curriculum goals as prescribed. Since we see that big picture, we often mistakenly assume that our students do as well, which could not be further from the truth. If I were to tell my students in September what the objectives were for the next few months, or even for a week, a lot of them would be confused or overwhelmed. For that reason, objectives should be shared in small, daily portions so that each day, students leave the classroom with a measurable learning outcome. If my long-term goal is for students to understand functions of a plant cell, my daily objective might be to just look at one portion of that cell and to do a quick exit ticket to make sure students get that piece of learning under their belts before we move on. That way, their daily learning is digestible, can be assessed, and is clear to all.

Learning, Not Activity

There is a huge difference between a task and an objective. My children love playing with their classes via Kahoot, but engaging in the game does not necessarily mean that learning has occurred. For example, suppose that the teacher’s Kahoot game revolves around knowing parts of speech. Students may know them, or they may not, but the game can occur without any kind of learning target in existence. However, if the daily objective is that students will be able to identify common vs. proper nouns, and the game functions as a pre-assessment to determine what they can do, the activity suddenly becomes more connected to the process of meaningful learning. In other words, when we plan our lessons, we are not just planning at an activity or task-based level; rather, we are planning toward a specific goal, and we have to prioritize making sure that both we and our students know what they are supposed to be able to do, as well as how what we do in class gets us to that learning target.

Plan Backwards

It can be so tempting to plan lessons as a series of “to do” items, but avoiding that urge is key to making sure our classes stay grounded in clear learning objectives. The concept of backward mapping is built upon a teacher’s ability to see the forest rather than individual trees. Before any specific class activities can be planned, we first set the objective. Then, instead of jumping right into a creative activity, we need to establish both pre-assessment measures and a solid plan that will demonstrate student learning in the clearest way possible. The last part of backward mapping involves developing additional strategies or plans to address any possible learning gaps that have been identified in the formative assessment process. Instead of planning lessons sequentially with a list of what must happen in order, we really need to think about the end point first. Then, we can break our overall goals into those smaller daily objectives that are more transparent for students.

While directives around creating or posting objectives can meet with pushback, there is a reason so many effective teachers prioritize the clear identification of goals. After all, how clear can teachers be if we do not identify where we want to go for our students in a way they can understand? Our purpose is not to teach ourselves, after all; we already know our content. We want the classes we teach to be just as clear on why they sit with us each day, and why we might give them a quiz, or a summarizer, or a what-have-you. The next time we sit down to plan, it might be a good idea to think about our classes from a student’s perspective and prioritize the clarity of our purpose by starting with strong mastery objectives.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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