Learning objectives. How can we in education take something so alive and make it sound so tremendously boring? It’s time to change this trend, my friends. It’s time.

Learning objectives are the juicy stuff! They’re the whole object-of-the-game gold sticker you work toward. And yet learning objectives are most often subsumed in the lesson as a must-have element, a box we teachers routinely check off in case we get an unannounced observation. Today, we’ll look at one’s learning objectives and revise them so that they are effective and truly matter to students.

Secret learning objectives aren’t helpful

When I first began teaching, I did not tell students what the goal of the lesson was. In my well-meaning naïveté, I kept them in the dark because I didn’t want to stress them out or make them feel as if they had failed in any way. So, as an example, I would tell my class that we were working on mixed numbers and then I’d proceed with the lesson and subsequent practice. They’d pass their work in to me, I’d correct it (usually), and I’d meet with those kids who’d missed the (secret) goal. I was the all-knowing teacher who did what was best for my little cherubs. All of the learning. None of the stress.

It took an online drawing class to teach me that I might be misguided in my approach.

An online art class is what helped me realize that telling my students the learning objective of each lesson might be a good idea.

I signed up with Sketchbook Skool, which seemed right up my alley. Online. Inexpensive. Geared for the person who wants to have fun and not suffer for her art.

The class exceeded all my expectations. (No, I’m not affiliated with them. I just think they are the cat’s meow.) I felt a freedom and lightness that had been absent many years. As an educator, though, it was an eye-opener. Each lesson had a concrete lesson objective. And if I didn’t meet that goal — which was often — no big deal! But I was aware of it and knew that this was an area I could come back to and work more. Grades had zero to do with it (they didn’t have grades, actually). I just knew that the more skills I gained as an artist, the more fun I’d have with it.  And something very subtle shifted in my teacher brain. “Maybe,” I thought, “Maybe I should tell students the goals upfront. So that they can take charge of their learning and have a little fun with it!”

True, my students were less stressed while I was in protective mode. Also true, though, was this: they didn’t know where they stood. Not in a class-rank way, but where they stood on the path of owning the knowledge and skills.  I realized that my omission of stating the learning objective made me that overprotective mom, afraid to let her child fall down. And we all know that falling down is something kids must experience on a regular basis so that they can learn how to get up, dust themselves off, and reassess the situation. It is an essential skill. Perhaps the most essential skill a healthy person can have.

I resolved the change tactics.

Phrasing learning objectives

Typically, in grad school, we learn the weird little acronym SWBAT —  teacher shorthand for “Students will be able to …” I prefer to use the first person, “I can …”  as it’s more relatable for kids. More important, though, the objective should be a concrete skill that you can measure. Here are some examples:

  • I can make two inferences about a character’s feelings based on their actions.
  • I can identify the capitals of the Northeast United States by using the legend on a political map.
  • I can measure the degrees of an acute angle.
  • I can write a paragraph using a topic sentence and three supporting details.
  • I can include at least five transition words in my persuasive essay.

The bullseye, as shown here, is the perfect metaphor for kids understanding the learning objective of a lesson.

Each of these examples names something specific that the student can prove either by writing or by telling you. The verbs are clear.

Words like “learn,” “listen,” and “participate”  are vague, marathon-y words. They cannot be proven and the student has gained no perceptible skill.

So instead of “I can learn how to add fractions with same denominator,” simply write, “I can add fractions with the same denominator.” Or, put another way, your learning objective should be something that your student could show she has mastered on an exit slip so that you could easily decide, “She got it,” or “She didn’t get it yet.”

You can’t prove “I can learn how to add fractions with the same denominator.” Yes, maybe they were present and got something out of the lesson, but you don’t know if they can or can’t add them accurately. Learning something and doing it independently are wildly different, just as learning about the moon on a PBS special is different than being able to name the moon’s phase when looking at the night sky.  If your verbs accurately describe what students should be able to accomplish at the end of the lesson, your kids will make more measured progress!

Learning objectives as delightful checklists

The telephone poles leading down a road symbolize how learning objectives should be doable pitstops on the way to the larger goal.

I am a fan of checklists. My husband loves them perhaps even more. His first item on his lists is usually, “Write a checklist.” Which seems preposterous at first glance. In fact, I laughed out loud the first time I saw him do it. But I stopped laughing when I realized that it frickin’ works. There is something about checking off items that is not only deeply satisfying but also gives you the unexpected fuel to go even further. 

Many people have a bucket list goal of running a marathon. But how crazy would it be — not to mention unwise —  to start day one with a goal like this: “I can run 26.2 miles.” One would be setting themselves up for immediate and continual failure, right?

Instead we start small, particularly if we haven’t been running at all lately. We put on those spankin’ new running shoes with the totally doable goal of “Today I can walk one mile.” Boom. Checkmark. Tomorrow you increase it slightly: “I can run to the third telephone pole on this road and then walk one mile.” Again, you can do that, right? Checkmark. The following day you increase it to four telephone poles. Then seven. And so on. These small attainable goals you can check off are a lot more satisfying than saying, “I can run 26.2 miles,” and failing at that goal every day. In fact, with a goal like that, you’d probably give up after week, wouldn’t you?

So why would we say to our students, “I can add fractions”? That’s a marathon goal. One they’ll undoubtedly fail for a long time. But what if we went in this sequence instead?

  • I can identify the denominator in a fraction.
  • I can add unit fractions with the same denominator
  • I can add proper fractions with the same denominator.
  • I can name at least one equivalent fraction for a given unit fraction.
  • I can find at least one equivalent fraction for a given proper fraction.
  • I can add unit fractions with different denominators.
  • I can add proper fractions with different denominators.
  • I can identify proper fractions and improper fractions.
  • I can convert an improper fraction to a mixed number.
  • I can convert a mixed number to an improper fraction.
  • I can add improper fractions with the same denominator with the sum as an improper fraction.
  • I can add improper fractions with the same denominator with the sum as a mixed number.
  • And so on…

Like measuring your run by telephone poles, these learning objectives are checkmark pitstops on the long road to adding fractions.

Like this little boy reading a map, kids need to understand the lesson's learning objective if they stand any chance of staying on course in their learning.

When to go over learning objectives

Go over those learning objectives as often as possible. The learning objective is the shiny gold star. Or, if you are a Harry Potter fan, think of it as the desirable Golden Snitch of the game.

In our room, we go over all the day’s learning objectives in the morning at the same time we go over the schedule. The students hear the goals and already their brains are prepped for the lessons to come later. (Get free downloadable Learning Objectives Labels.)

When we begin the lesson, we go over the goal again. And as the lesson progresses, we revisit the goal. Kids will often be asked to turn to a neighbor and share what the goal of the lesson is. Again, this isn’t done as a way to appease administration, but to genuinely keep kids’ minds tuned in to the why of the lesson. (Harry Potter didn’t go after the Snitch because Dumbledore might show up. He did it for the fun of the game!)

At the lesson’s end, students are asked how they feel about their progress on the goal. They give us a thumbs up (I can do this so well, I could teach it to someone!) , a 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), or a thumbs-down (I don’t have this yet. I need to go over this with a teacher again.)

These two boys give thumbs up. This is what I have my students do in my classroom if they feel like they have sufficiently met the learning objective.

Sometimes, we’ll ask for thumbs feedback during the lesson, to see how students are progressing. (If it’s the beginning of the year and students are not comfortable with being vulnerable, you could have them close their eyes and give the thumb signal. Or they can hold their thumb signal in front of their chest.)

At the end of the day, when we sit in a circle together before dismissal, we go over all the goals and each child rates him or herself. This serves four purposes:

  1. Their brain is getting yet another reminder about the takeaway from each lesson.
  2. You are getting feedback about where you might tweak tomorrow’s lessons or an upcoming RTI session.
  3. They can begin taking risks in front of each other and can see that other people may also feel confused. On the days you get a lot of thumbs-down, you know you need to revisit that concept with the whole group.
  4. When they see that their votes affect the way the lessons progress in the next days, they feel ownership over their learning and over the way the classroom runs.

Occasionally, you’ll have the student who either knowingly or unknowingly states an inaccurate view of his progress. He might give himself a thumbs-up when you know for sure that he’s not there. This will happen, of course. So you can either meet with that student in private or take his feedback with a big grain of salt.

Overall, though, the thumb signals are a great way to get a quick snapshot. It’s just one of many tools at your disposal for checking in with the students.

Taking learning objectives one step further

Once you feel on your game with learning objectives, you can bring the big “WHY” on board. Why are we learning this? How will it help you?

A technique that can work wonders is the Career Cards. This method is fast, easy, and highly effective.

Give each child one index card. Have her write her name along with a career she wants to pursue as an adult. Then, if she likes, she can draw a quick little sketch of herself in this role. Depending on your group, this should take five to ten minutes. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Then collect the cards.

Let’s say you have a child that wants to be a soccer player. You can pull out your cards and relate the goal to this career. So let’s say we are going over obtuse angles in class. You can say, “Today’s goal is ‘I can measure an obtuse angle using a protractor.’ So 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 more valuable player and more likely to get on your preferred team.”

This pulls them IN! Suddenly the lesson is all about their life. Suddenly, it matters. And 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 his mind about his career (which will happen all the time), then just give him another index card and return the original card. (This is why it’s so important to keep this super simple.)

Plus, you can also use these cards to call on kids. Sometimes we’ll use them to have kids line up. “Dr. Jenkins, you may line up. Mr. Holmes, who just won Most Valuable Player, you may line up.” They go gaga over this.

The Career Cards are just index cards. Kids write their chosen profession and I use these to make the learning objective more relevant to their life's aspirations.

What about you?

So let’s recap:

  • Writing goals using clear verbs that can be proven gets results
  • Making the goals small and specific, in a checklist sequence, will give kids the needed boost to feel successful
  • Repeat the goal and check in often with the students on their progression
  • Relate the goal to areas that interest them to make it relevant

Now it’s time to hear from you! What change will you make in your learning objective goals? What do you find challenging about writing learning objectives? Or. What little tricks do you use to help your students buy into goals?

Don’t forget to download these free Learning Objectives Labels. Simply print, cut, and laminate! And be sure to visit my Teachers pay Teachers store for more free goodies to deepen your love of teaching.

As always, if you found this information valuable, please share it on your favorite social media platform! Till next week!



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