In my years in education, no single statement from a teacher ever shook me more than from a struggling individual who—in a stressful moment—proclaimed to me, “I don’t know what’s going wrong! I’m up there teaching, they’re just not learning!” Awful as that is, it was a good thing to hear for two reasons. First, this was that teacher’s reality. and we had to respond to the situation. Second, this statement clarified something that I think teachers take for granted: if you don’t know what’s going on, how can your students know what’s going on? As bad as I felt for that teacher (who decided not to stay in the field), I felt terrible for his students. What was their classroom experience like? What had they learned, and how? What were they going to take with them from this class?

In discussing the problems, I found this teacher had a bad case of “sage on the stage.” He figured with all he knew, his job was primarily to put his thoughts into kids’ heads, and that was enough of a plan. Educator and political scientist Herbert Simon said it a bit better, I think, when he said, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” In other words, the teacher must be a “guide on the side.” Well, what do guides need? Good ones have maps.

Think of learning objectives as your maps.

Maps show you the whole landscape—where you’re going, where you’ve been, what other roads exist, and where paths connect. To the sage on the stage, this sort of map might seem unnecessary—even insulting. The guide on the side, however, is leaning over the traveler’s shoulder, saying, “We’re going this way next. It’s like the road we’re turning off now, but you’re going to see this instead. We’ll be on that road for, oh, about an hour, before you’ll see something really spectacular.” And like maps, learning objectives have certain things in common.

Good learning objectives are:

  • Knowledge- or skill-based: You can state clearly what the student should know or be able to do at the end of the lesson. This planning focuses instruction away from “they just need to know this” to “…because I want them to be able to do something meaningful.”
  • Observable: The work results in something visible. Not every lesson will have a product, but every lesson should be able to. Students benefit from being able to show their work.
  • Measurable: The work results in demonstrable progress towards a goal. Can you define success in this learning process? If not, how can your students?
  • Shared with students: The students can inform you of the plan and explain it to you in their own words. Anyone can read off a board—that’s not effective sharing. Ultimately, it’s not your ability to read a map that matters.

Think of our “sage on the stage” friend whose goal was “talk until they know things.” Did his students know how the roads connected? What they would see next? Could they explain the plan to you? Probably not.

Obviously, these sorts of plans don’t just happen. Maps don’t write themselves. To craft excellent learning objectives, try these three steps:

Step 1: Identify the knowledge or skill you want student to learn. (Example: I want students to know the major causes of the American Revolution.)

Step 2: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy, identify the knowledge level at which you want students to learn, and select an observable verb to describe the behavior. (Example: Analysis – I want students to be able to compare and contrast the major causes of the American Revolution.) (Side note: if you’re not familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy yet, you are in for a treat! There are few more universally-useful lesson-planning tools out there than Bloom’s. Look it up!)

Step 3: Add what the learner will be doing to demonstrate achievement or mastery of the objective. (Example: Students will write a two-page essay that compares and contrasts the major causes of the American Revolution.)

Let’s compare those objectives to the stated characteristics. Is the plan Knowledge- or Skill-based? Yes! I want my students to know something specific. Is the work Observable? Yes! I can observe their essay. Is it Measurable? Yes! It should be two pages, and it should demonstrate their understanding. Is it Shared with Students? I’m going to post it on the board, hand out a rubric, and discuss it with my class, so, yes!

Finally, we’re not actually mountain guides, we’re teachers, so let’s leave that metaphor for now. Setting learning objectives leads to deeper understanding and better-connected lessons. It also, frankly, makes lesson-planning easier, because if you walk through those characteristics (“What specifically do I want my students to know? How are they going to show it to me? What action verb best fits their measurable progress?”), you are answering the question: “What am I doing in class this week?”

The sage on the stage believes his knowledge is enough—students will, he hopes, bring their own motivation. It’s the guide on the side, though, who gets students where they’re going. Be sure to bring a map.