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?