Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Teaching Objectives or Learning Objectives?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville


One day long ago my student teaching practicum supervisor, the one with the fine-toothed comb, asked me “Why are you planning to start your lesson with this jazz chant?”  I replied “Because it will be fun!”  At that, she sighed… not out of relief, mind you, but out of discontent.

My answer revealed that I had not fully grasped one of the key points about learning objectives: that they must allow us to measure what the students have learned.   “Fun cannot function as an objective of learning,” my practicum supervisor continued.  “How would you measure that fun?”  “What would your students learn from that fun?”

As I began my teaching career, those key questions continued to swirl around in my head, and even though they seemed relatively easy to answer, formulating learning objectives which were both specific and practicable (unlike some larger instructional goals) was not an effortless task for me. Often, the objectives I devised sounded fine, but after a second look, they turned out to be flawed, partly because they were more about what the teacher wanted than about what the learner needed.  Here are some examples.

  • “Students will understand how to use possessive pronouns.”
  • “Students will know how to talk about their personal life.”
  • “Students will practice formal and informal greetings.”

Such objectives were decent and useful enough, I thought.  I wanted the students to understand this, to know that, and to practice those things, and I assumed that they would learn from the activities I had planned, but those activities were nowhere apparent in those objectives.  Worse, those objectives, as stated, were not measurable. How could I measure “understanding or knowing”?  What about “practicing”?  Was that measurable?

After some revision, those objectives became:

  • “Students will use possessive pronouns accurately.
  • “Students will answer correctly at least three questions about their personal life.”
  • “Students will demonstrate that they know the difference between formal and informal greetings.”

In these forms they seemed more exact, more task oriented, and, quite naturally, more measurable too.   

As the years passed, and I got better at orienting my objectives more toward learning than teaching, I created a strategy for deriving a learning objective from a “language carrot.”

A “language carrot” is a potential result of a lesson’s or week’s work, and a view to the details (perhaps rather, in keeping with the metaphor, composition) of that “carrot” can direct a teacher to a precise formulation of a learning objective.  The objective can, in turn, guide a teacher to exact instruction which results in measurable learning on the part of her students.

The first time I “dangled a language carrot,” it went like this…

I presented my students with a seven-sentence narrative in which all the sentences began with a grammatical subject, and beside it I placed a similar narrative including several sentences which began with present or past participle phrases.  (Enter the “carrot”…)  I then asked my students which narrative they preferred. To this, some responded “The one that’s not so boring!” but some also responded “The one that’s not so repetitive.”  At that point, I seized the moment and asked them “How would you like to learn the ‘tricks’ to writing the better one?”

The learning objective derived from that “language carrot” was:  By the end of this week’s unit, students will be able to write a narrative composed of five to seven sentences, at least three of which exhibit correct usage of present or past participle phrases before subjects.  

Have you had any adventures in developing your own learning objectives?


Comment from Ligia
April 4, 2012 at 6:26 am

Thanks for this important information, I need that you explain me, what is the difference between a competence and an objective?

Comment from Ela Newman
April 4, 2012 at 8:30 am

Hello Ligia,

I’d say that, generally, the role of lesson, unit, or course objectives is to support, to lead to core competences. Learning objectives tend to be more specific and identify the skill to be mastered as well as conditions under which such a skill will be learned and evaluated. If, for example, “being able to comprehend texts written at an advanced level” were one core competency, lesson or unit objectives would “break it down” to skills mastered on the way to achieving that competency. I hope this helps a bit.

Comment from Ariel Ky
April 4, 2012 at 8:44 am

2012 5:52 AM, Ariel Ky wrote:

This was interesting and helpful. However, I would just like to point out that jazz chants are not just a fun activity. I really don’t want to see using them discredited because you can’t readily measure the results immediately. They are more useful than any grammar activity that you can measure in helping students get the prosody of English, the music of the language, the rise and fall of words in a sentence. Jazz chants are the fastest way I know of getting students studying English to actually use contractions and pronounce them properly. Now there’s a result you could measure.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, either, in the push for measurable outcomes. Teaching language is not just a social science, it’s also an art. Energizing students at the outset of the class and getting everyone to use English right at the beginning is a valuable activity for managing the flow of energy in the class. What the teacher wants is pretty important in the classroom. And we need to keep ourselves going, upbeat and full of energy. If we’re bored, so will the students be.

In my long career of teaching, I have always spent a lot of time in preparation and coming up with activites that I’ve created whole cloth myself, because it keeps teaching interesting for me. I recently taught in Saudi Arabia, and it was a disaster. I was a following a book very closely, and there was little time for improvisation. For the first time in my long teaching career, I dreaded going to classes.

There are two kinds of students when it comes down to it, motivated students who want to learn and those who have other agendas for coming to an English class (to obey their parents, to have a social life, to pass time in a way that might be useful when they don’t know what to do with themselves yet, to torment the teacher, to sleep or laze their way through whereever they find themselves, in a classroom or otherwise). As a teacher, the task falls upon you to motivate your students. And it comes down to motivating yourself.

So, there’s nothing wrong with having fun to start out the class. If it’s all about measurable outcomes, which do have value, I’ll grant you, but it can’t be just about one way of structuring language activities or you just might find teaching rather grim.

Comment from Ela Newman
April 4, 2012 at 10:13 am

Hi Ariel,

Thanks for sharing your comments! I totally agree with you. There is definitely room for fun. The point I am making at the beginning of the blog is that just plain, old “fun” does not work so well as a formal goal behind selecting a language activity. I understand that there needs to be something specific about its use. “Setting a relaxed atmosphere, which has proven to be conducive to language learning” might be a better reason for my incorporating that jazz chant. “Introducing students, with the use of a playful activity, to the topic of the class” might work, too, as a justifiable reason. Or “Motivating students to become engaged in the lesson” seems like a good alternative. I suppose my teaching practicum supervisor wanted to make sure that I, a teacher-to-be, was aware of the real purpose behind that activity. To her, “fun” was much too general. I refer to that “jazz chant” episode to introduce the topic of my blog, the core of which focuses more on lesson or unit objectives, which, to my mind, must be measurable. And yes, just like you said, teaching without fun would make us and our students rather miserable.

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