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Crafting Multipurpose Learning Objectives

posted Sep 12, 2017, 8:01 PM by Mark Schober   [ updated Sep 20, 2017, 8:48 PM ]
Well-written learning objectives make expectations clear to students, bring focus to instructional time, encompass the external requirements on your course, and guide the design of assessments. In my teaching, learning objectives also serve as the starting point for conferences with students, valuable content for grade narratives, and they form the heart of my standards-based grading system.

Depending upon whom you read, goals, objectives, and standards are all defined differently. It’s important to know your administrator’s definition of these terms so that you can please the powers that be, but this document takes a more pragmatic approach in order to create statements useful for standards based grading, what we’ll eventually call student learning objectives.

Multiple Purposes of Learning Objectives

  • Learning objectives clarify models and connections between models
  • Learning objectives make expectations clear to students and support metacognition 
  • Learning objectives bring focus to instructional time
  • Learning objectives guide the design of assessments 
  • Learning objectives jump-start conferences with students
  • Learning objectives provide meaningful content for grade comments
  • Learning objectives form the core of a standards-based grading system
  • Learning objectives summarize your course for colleagues/administrators
In broad terms, what do you want students to take away from your course? What do you want them to remember years from now? What skills do you want them to develop? You may have prescribed state, district, or national course goals that you are to follow; you may be following the goals for particular end-of-course assessments; or you may be free to design the course as you see fit. In any case, begin by writing down what you want students to know and do by the time they finish your course. If it’s important to you, write an objective for it. Such a list could initially be many pages long, but through successive revisions, you’ll pare it down into a compact, robust list of student learning objectives. 

Version 0: Gathering resources. There's no writing at this stage, it's just researching and cutting and pasting. Get out your course syllabus and any curriculum guides or textbooks you follow. Find the national, state, local, and standardized exam objectives that apply to you. Even if you aren't beholden to these standards, you'll find that these statements/standards/objectives will jumpstart the process and give you something to react to as you write your own learning objectives. Note also that few of these are worded in a way that will be helpful for assessing student growth in your classroom. Through the steps that follow, you'll develop a more user-friendly set of learning objectives.

Version 1: Write down your teaching objectives. Robert Marzano suggests starting your list of learning objectives using these prompts:

Students will be able to _______________________

Students will understand ______________________

The former referring to procedural knowledge (skills) and the latter to declarative knowledge (content). As you craft this initial list, you are writing from a teacher’s perspective, so feel free to use discipline specific terminology that may not be that useful to the student. If you have been teaching for a while, you will be able to write these down off of the top of your head, but if you’re teaching a new course or are new to teaching, using other teacher’s objectives is a good place to start.

Version 2: Choose your words carefully. While using “understand” and “will be able to” are helpful for starters, both should eventually be replaced by more specific and measurable verbs. Marzano suggests: Name, List, Label, State, Describe, and Identify for demonstrating declarative knowledge, and Use, Demonstrate, Show, Make, Complete, and Draft for procedural knowledge. 

Version 3: Organize and simplify your list. Here is where you think about the deep structure of the content of your course. Ultimately, you want fewer than forty objectives for the year -- aim for twenty or fewer if you can. That kind of consolidation requires identifying the big themes, recurring skills, and core concepts of your course. Here are some things to think about when streamlining your list of objectives. 

1. Student learning objectives should be concrete in terms of what the students should be able to demonstrate, but broad in scope. If you get buried too deep into content details, you’ll have too many objectives to keep track of.

2. Ideally, each objective is assessed many times throughout the course -- each new topic builds upon the ideas introduced earlier in the course and requires the application of previously learned skills. Therefore, a new unit of study may only add a few new learning objectives while still using many of the previous learning objectives.

3. Avoid the tendency to think too much along content-driven objectives and conscientiously include skill-based objectives. For example, problem solving skills can be shown in the context of all sorts of different content and may make a better starting point for a unifying objective in your course.

4. Topics disconnected from the central themes of the course are what students will forget almost immediately -- so either leave them out or find a way to connect them to the central themes of the course.

5. Skills and content are often intertwined in middle and high school math and science courses, and combining them into objectives that demonstrate understanding by using a problem solving skill make robust learning objectives.

6. Some of your objectives may refer to different levels of mastery of the same underlying concept. Such groupings lend themselves well to a rating scale, where each level of understanding is specifically defined. (If you don’t have objectives that group in this way, that’s fine, you can use a more generic rating scale.)

Version 4.0: Rewrite as student objectives. Write your objectives so that they make sense to students. The “I can _______” format for each learning objective gets students thinking about what they need to be able to do, where the blank is essentially identical to what you wrote from the teacher point of view. The only changes you might make are to modify the language to make it more meaningful to the student.

Version 4.x: Keep revising. Your classroom activities will shift your objectives and assessment, even while preparing students to meet your learning objectives will drive your classroom activities. Use this feedback loop to improve your objectives and your instruction. Also, while grading a pile of assessments in about March, you’ll think about how much easier the task in front of you would be if you had just worded the objective a little bit differently, or combined two objectives, or added a different type of objective. Make note of those thoughts and keep revising. It’s an ongoing process.