Learning objectives, targets and goals
By Erick Herrmann

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During the past several years, writing learning objectives, targets or goals has become an increasingly common practice. Professionals often use the terms objectives, targets and goals interchangeably. For purposes of clarity, the term objectives will be used throughout this article. While goals and targets can be used to accurately describe the concept, the term objectives may be seen as more academic in nature.


Do you post written objectives for your students?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

According to Robert Marzano, the importance of communicating to students what they are expected to learn and be able to do via learning goals and objectives was emphasized as early as 1949 by Ralph Tyler, an educational philosopher. Tyler noted that a well-written objective should clearly communicate the knowledge students should gain as well as how this knowledge will be demonstrated.

In 1971, David R. Krathwohl and D.A. Payne delineated three types of objectives: global, educational and instructional. These three types of objectives move from more general global objectives, which address broad topics, to more specific instructional objectives, which address what students should be able to do, the conditions under which they should be able to perform and the criterion of acceptable performance. Educational objectives seem to be the most common in classrooms today, as these objectives address what students should know or be able to do, but do not necessarily identify the criteria or conditions for success.

Several types of objectives are present in classrooms today. While educational objectives that refer to content knowledge and skills are the most common, the incorporation of language objectives is becoming increasingly popular. This is especially true in classrooms with English language learners and in bilingual programs as a way to communicate to students how they will increase their knowledge, understanding and fluency in the target language.

This practice is strongly emphasized in Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners, The SIOP Model by Jana Echevarria, Deborah Short and MaryEllen Vogt. The research that supports the SIOP Model indicates that this practice is beneficial for students, especially ELLs.

Language objectives may include a wide range of topics, and often reflect the state's English Language Proficiency Standards. Some examples of topics in writing language objectives include student use of key vocabulary, language functions and their related forms, or specific reading and writing skills.

Students may be asked to incorporate specific vocabulary into their speech as they discuss the academic topic, build vocabulary into their writing or nonlinguistically indicate their understanding of the terms they are reading or hearing through gestures or sketches. Specific language functions such as compare and contrast, sequencing, or expressing cause and effect, and their related grammatical forms, may also be built into language objectives.

Words and phrases such as "similar to," "despite the fact that," "subsequently" and "consequently" are specialized, academic terms that indicate the language function, but are not always easily incorporated into speech and writing by students. Practice with reading and writing skills such as identifying importance in text, practicing decoding skills and summarizing are also appropriate to build into language objectives.

While the authors of The SIOP Model advocate for writing separate content and language objectives, others are advocating for the incorporation of language skills into content objectives. In either case, making language learning explicit benefits students as it clarifies what they should know and learn in a given lesson.

Some teachers also incorporate a third type of objective: behavioral. Behavioral objectives make explicit to students the actions and behaviors associated with classroom activities. Examples of behavioral objectives may include engaging in conversations, working in cooperative groups or delivering speeches.

Posting and sharing objectives with students

Once objectives have been written, it is important to consider how you will share the objectives with students. There are multiple ways teachers can share objectives with students. This is potentially the most important step in the process. It is critical that students understand the point of the lesson being delivered. When we share objectives with students, we make the expectation of learning explicit.

The simplest way for teachers to share objectives is to do so orally. Teachers may tell students at the start of the lesson what they will be learning or focusing on. "Today we will be learning about ...", "Our job today is to ..." or similar phrases may be employed to share objectives with students. Throughout the lesson, it is beneficial to share with students how the activities and tasks they are engaged in are helping them to meet the stated objectives. It can be beneficial to have the objectives written in a designated space in the classroom to refer to throughout the lesson.

When posting written objectives, teachers have several options. Posting objectives on a fixed or portable whiteboard at the front of the room, on a piece of butcher paper, on sentence strips placed in a pocket chart or printed and posted in page protectors are all options for having written objectives. When objectives are posted and written, it adds the visual modality in addition to hearing the objective. It can then serve as a visual reminder to teachers to refer to the objective at the beginning of the lesson, throughout and at the end of the lesson.

Whether incorporating one, two or all three types of objectives listed above, research has demonstrated that writing objectives helps students to stay focused on what they are to learn, determines what is important and keeps classroom activities focused. Writing, posting and sharing objectives is an effective instructional practice that, with time, becomes a natural part of classroom instruction.

Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Educating English Learners. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.