Learning objectives: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Learning objectives: A teacher's guide to developing clear classroom guidance for deeper understanding.

What are learning objectives?

The statements that define the expected aim of a lesson, curriculum, activity or course are called learning objectives. These are acquired by a student in terms of demonstrable knowledge or skills as a result of instruction. In this article we will explore the fundamentals of these descriptive statements and offer a new perspective using the Universal Thinking Framework. We will put forward some traditional educational views and present some innovative ways of engineering these statements that enable children to understand exactly how to move forward with their learning. We will also showcase some visual approaches that help pupils understand how to organise their thoughts and achieve the learning goals.

An objective is a goal that you set for yourself when writing lessons. The objective should be specific enough to help you achieve it, yet general enough to apply to many different situations. To create effective lesson objectives, ask yourself these questions: What am I trying to teach here? What does this lesson need to accomplish? What is the most important take away?

Once you've answered those questions, you're ready to write your lesson objectives. Here's an example:"Today we'll learn how to use a food processor." That's pretty vague. But if you break down the question into its component parts, you get a better idea of what you're teaching. First, you're teaching how to use a food processor. Second, you're teaching how a food processor works. Third, you're teaching how you can use a food processor. And finally, you're teaching how food processors work.

Now you can answer each of those questions individually. So let's say you wanted to teach how to use a food processing machine. Your lesson would include information on how to operate the machine, where to find it, and how to clean it. Your lesson would also include information on how to prepare foods for processing, including chopping vegetables, slicing meat, grinding nuts, etc. Finally, your lesson would include information on the benefits of using a food processor versus other methods of preparing food.

If you were going to teach how to use an electric mixer instead, you'd still cover similar topics. However, you wouldn't necessarily talk about cleaning the mixer, since there isn't any dirt to remove. Instead, you'd talk about the types of ingredients you can mix together, how to measure ingredients, and how to store them. When creating lesson objectives, keep in mind that you're not just teaching facts. You're also teaching skills and concepts. For example, if you're teaching how to cook a cake, you may want to include tips on baking techniques, such as beating eggs properly, measuring flour correctly, mixing dry ingredients thoroughly, and adding liquid slowly.

This type of information helps students understand the steps involved in making a cake, and gives them confidence in their ability to bake cakes (or develop any other procedural or declarative knowledge for that matter).

What are different forms of learning objectives?

 Learning objectives can be presented in any of the following forms:

  • Lesson level objectives: These are also called class-period objectives. Teachers can decide core learning objectives for a particular lesson that is delivered in a unit, course or project. They can set learning objectives (or learning targets) every day when they instruct learners. For instance, a teacher can write a list of daily learning objectives on the classroom board, or learning goals can be posted on an online course-management system. This will help students to know about the learning expectations for any specific class period. Lesson level objectives help students progressively move toward achieving more comprehensive learning goals for a lesson or course.
  • Unit objectives: Teachers may set core learning objectives for each instructional unit, which is mostly comprised of a sequence of lessons focused on a common theme or particular topic, for example, assessment lesson objectives for a historical era or environmental issue.
  • Course Level Objectives: These are also called program objectives. These objectives are broad. There may be only 3-5 course level objectives. Teachers can determine learning objectives for a course, aspects of curriculum design and delivery or any academic program such as a vacation-break program or summer-school sessions. Teachers can decide comprehensive learning goals for a full-year course, or they can set interim goals for the courses with a shorter duration.
  • School-year objectives: These are also called grade-level objectives. School-year objectives are brief written details of what learners are expected to know and what they should be able to do at any specified stage of their learning. Grade-level learning objectives include what learners need to accomplish academically by the end of a specific grade level. (School-year objectives can be explained using the terms like grade-level benchmarks or grade-level indicators).

exploring lesson level objectives with the Universal Thinking Framework
exploring lesson level objectives with the Universal Thinking Framework




How should we articulate learning objectives?

Before finalizing the content to teach in the course, individual teachers must ensure to provide the course with a great internal structure suitable for student learning. There is a need to have alignment between curriculum and learning objectives. The following essential components of the course must be aligned to provide an internally consistent structure to the learning objectives. Alignment occurs when the:

  • A well-written initial learning objective articulates the skills and knowledge that students are expected to acquire by the end of the course or key stage;
  • Assessments enable the instructor to assess the degree to which the learners are fulfilling the learning objectives;
  • Education strategies are favourable to help students meet the learning objectives.

If the above components of the course are not aligned, we may receive complaints from pupils, rightfully arguing that the test did not include things that were taught in class, or it may harm teacher performance and teachers might feel that even if the students are getting passing grades, they did not master the topic at a higher level. School development plans for teachers must ensure to align learning objectives, assessment tools and instructional strategies. It is a dynamic process, and any change in one will affect the other two.

An excellent method to address course design is through starting from the Learning objectives, then checking the other two components, and re-examining the cycle repeatedly as and when needed.

Communicating clear cognitive skill levels
Communicating clear cognitive skill levels

What are the benefits of articulating the learning objectives?

Articulating the learning objectives will allow:

  • Teachers to choose and organize course content, and select reasonable instructional and assessment
  • Learners to continue their learning efforts thoughtfully and monitor their progress.

The learning objectives of the core curriculum are to develop competency in communication. According to the communication experts, core communication objectives are to improve acts of communication-related to any particular subject. For example, the main objective of communication in health professions is to improve general communication abilities and how they demonstrate communication with patients and common people.

Graphic organisers for scaffolding the learning objectives
Graphic organisers for scaffolding the learning objectives

Moving beyond the broad statement of learning 

The universal thinking framework has become popular partly because of its concrete actions are easy to understand. Children can sometimes get lost in complex language which prevents them from accessing the core content. The framework has been used by schools to help them design robust learning experiences. Predominantly, it has been adopted to build lasting conceptual knowledge in subject-specific domains. In the UK, the amount of knowledge that a student is expected to understand and remember has increased significantly. As we see it, the only way to advance learning outcomes is to adopt metacognitive knowledge about how we all understand and remember information. The domain of cognitive science provides us with some broad principles that can be transformational in classroom settings.

This mental procedural knowledge enables students to take control of their learning and work more independently. To remember the vast amounts of factual knowledge in any given subject requires a robust understanding of how to organise and use information. Blooms Taxonomy provided classes with lesson level verbs and that could be used to identify the 'level' of learning. The universal thinking framework builds on this idea but provides more specific guidance about the nature of the cognitive domain the learner is working in. This is particularly useful when designing assessment methods and schemes of work. The lesson level verbs can be used as 'academic stepping stones' that gradually increase cognitive skill levels. The block building methodology that we have been researching enables learners to build structural knowledge. This means the systematic building of schema in the student's mind. The factual knowledge is connected into larger frameworks of understanding which increases the likelihood of curriculum content being both understood and remembered.

What are the features of an effective learning objective?

As suggested by the experts across education, learning objectives need to be student-centred, explaining what the learners are expected to be able to achieve as a result of instruction, rather than what the teacher will include or cover in the course. Teachers are suggested to provide individual feedback to the learners identifying specific qualities or issues in student work. Constructive feedback guides learners on what critical steps to take to improve their performance in education. As part of the school improvement plan, detailed feedback justifies to students how their grades or marks were derived. To ensure that the learning objectives are student-focused, it is suggested to add the following prompt while articulating the learning objectives:

“Upon successful completion of the course, students will be able to _____.”

Blooms Taxonomy for framing learning objectives
Blooms Taxonomy for framing learning objectives

An effective learning objective provides students with a clear knowledge about the learning activity and what they must achieve and how. Well-Defined Learning Objectives are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Result-oriented, and Time-bound (SMART)

Specific: Learning objectives must be broken down into manageable components, and they need to be brief, clearly providing the intended outcomes according to these components.

Measurable: To help instructors determine how well learners have attained the desired learning, it is suggested to include guidelines for evaluation in the learning objectives. A typical approach to measuring a successful learning process is to ask learners to assess their learning outcome against a variety of variables. As instructors are not able to directly make formal observations or get the evidence of the progress of what's happening insides a student's mind, they must use external indicators (what the learner does or says) for evaluating a student’s progress. Hence, it is not possible to evaluate a student's progress on basis of what a student feels, knows, or understands. For this reason, learning objectives must include changes that can be measured and observed.

Achievable: Given the education resources, period of time available, and students' background, and readiness to learn; learning objectives must be achievable. The learning objectives must refer to the cognitive skill levels of the students or the course level.

Result-oriented: Learning objectives should be focused on the outcomes. Weak learning objectives put more focus on educational activities or processes that students will complete (e.g., writing a definition of action verbs or a list of action verbs). An effective learning objective provides the result; the skills, ability levels, knowledge, or attitudes that learners should have acquired by the end of the class/ unit/ or session.

Time-bound: An effective learning objective, includes a clear timeline (if applicable). This will help instructors decide how well the students are expected to perform to be considered competent.

Learning outcome should inform the teaching approach
Learning outcome should inform the teaching approach

Creating well-defined learning objectives

Research evidence about teaching suggests that before writing a learning objective, a teacher must identify the levels of initial learning and current learning of the target group of students. Benjamin S. Bloom, an educational psychologist at the University of Chicago, proposed Bloom’s Taxonomy - a classification of learning objectives and skills that teachers set for their students. According to Benjamin Bloom, each of the most effective learning objectives have one measurable verb. It is also suggested to have each action verb relevant to the topic of study. Also, all of the learning objectives must be concise, clear and measurable. Many of our members are using the universal thinking framework for deepening conceptual knowledge. A primary school in Northamptonshire in the UK has successfully embedded the procedural knowledge of organising and learning into everyday school life. This helps children talk through their plans of how to tackle classroom tasks. The teaching staff also use the taxonomy as an assessment tool.

In the future of education, current ways of teaching such as current ways of classroom observation protocol, and face to face learning might become invalid. Thus new ways of designing deeper learning objectives, professional development of staff, community-connected learning, education jobs, and, performance management observations will be needed. By creating the most effective learning objectives, it can be made possible to improve overall school culture and all-important intended learning outcomes.