Pedagogy Postcard #2: Learning Objectives vs Tasks

A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed.


Very often, in the busy flow of every day school life, although I have an overarching idea of the broad learning goals, I plan the individual lessons in terms of tasks.  I think about what my students will do.  For example, in an electricity topic, they might make some circuits with different components,  measure voltage and current readings, plot graphs, discuss their findings, answer some follow-up questions…. And so on.  Some students will get more done than others and that’s the crudest form of differentiation there is.  At the end of all of this activity, I’m working on the assumption that they will have learned various relevant aspects of the science topic in hand.

Although task planning is a common, practical way to think about your lessons for the week it’s just hit and hope…. It’s far from ideal. It can lead to a lot of dissipated energy, wasted time and unfocused learning. My experience is that my lessons are much better when the learning objectives are very clear in my mind; when I’m really clear about the purpose of all the tasks and I’ve got a reasonably tight goal in my mind for that specific lesson.

So, the learning objective for the electricity example above might be:

for students to recognise:

  • that voltage and current vary in direct proportion for a fixed resistor
  • that the curve for a light bulb shows that its resistance changes as it heats up
  • that the resistance increases as shown by the gradient of the curve.

This sounds obvious enough but it makes quite a difference.  It makes you ask yourself ‘why are they doing what they are doing?’ which can then lead to a more efficient use of time, cutting out activities that don’t support the learning objectives directly; it helps sharpen your questions and provide more focused assessment feedback.

Alom Shaha makes this point really well in relation to science demonstrations and class practicals.

If you want students to develop practical skills, to become familiar with apparatus and gain an understanding of the complexities of measurement, then a hands-on experiment is an essential task for that objective.  But, if you want them to make a connection between an abstract idea and its manifestation in a real setting, then a teacher-led demo is likely to be far more effective.

The same applies in other subjects.  For example, in History GCSE, it’s  useful to make a distinction between a learning objective about the historical understanding the significance of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam…versus an objective to understand the assessment requirements of a 10 mark answer on a source paper.  These things may overlap in the source analysis task, but what is the main learning you are after?

In English, it makes a difference if you are focusing on knowing and understanding Falstaff’s character development in Act II in broad narrative terms rather than the more technical ideas about Shakespeare’s use of structure and language in the text. And each of these can be developed more sharply if your objective is clear during the task of ‘reading and analysing Act II’.  Of course these things interact and overlap, but students get a firmer grasp if the focus in any given lesson is precise.  The terms ‘narrative’, ‘structure’ and ‘language’ need to be learned clearly before students can use them.. obviously enough… but that requires some sharp sequencing of learning objectives.

In Maths, if you want students to know how to learn how to solve simultaneous equations by substitution, then it makes sense to show them how, give a few examples and get them to practise their own before checking how they’re getting on. A group task or long lecture wouldn’t be as effective.  The specific learning objective helps to identify the most efficient and effective strategy.

If you want students to practise their ability to use language spontaneously in French, a role play or group task is going to help deliver that learning objective because they need interaction in that form.

I’ve seen plenty of must/could/should Learning Objectives in classrooms that are really just a list of tasks. Is that helpful? It can be.. but it’s not the same thing at all.  The most important thing is that you, the teacher, know what the learning objectives are; getting that very clear in your mind.  You really don’t need the students to write them down slavishly. I don’t understand why schools make teachers do that.


  1. I’d extend this to include the learning objectives in assessments. I explicitly tie each activity, question or task to a specific referenced learning objective that students have in advance (and are linked to our provincial curriculum standards). This is true for learning activities day to day and assessment/evaluation activities. By extending the link to assessment and evaluation it is possible to more accurately and precisely identify, describe and report on students’ strengths and weaknesses.


  2. Just some questions to make teachers think. I think the answers depend on the context, but at least thinking about the questions and answers, help you to be reflective for a particular class, and less ‘robotic’ (i’ve taught this for the last 3 years, i know exactly what to do AGAIN!)
    Is it necessary to explain learning objectives?
    Is a list of tasks different?
    Could you have a list of learning objectives and a list of tasks?
    Is it always appropriate to share learning objectives at the start?
    Is there a difference between a learning objective and a learning outcome?
    Should they always be differentiated?
    Which are the most important words?


    • I agree that “slavishly writing down objectives” is often not necessary but in my context I think students understanding the focus of the lesson is very important. The majority of the learners in my class are EAL and for them, knowing the focus of the lesson clarifies what they need to pay attention to. So that whilst it is important that I’m clear about the objectives, I believe it’s equally important for students. In a primary context teachers need to evaluate whether the time spent accurately copying down the objective would be better spent on the learning intentions of the lesson.


      • It’s OK if the copying leads to understanding the objectives. I’ve seen lessons where the copying was too robotic leaving students none the wiser about the learning to follow.


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