One of the things that I’ve noticed in many of the classes, seminars and workshops that I’ve taken is that a lot of teachers don’t seem to understand how to create and use objectives. It’s easy to dismiss them as unnecessary or as buzzwords, but I’ve found that they have a lot to offer.
When I’m talking about objectives in a teaching context, I’m talking about the goals that I hope and plan to meet. In a sense, they’re the minimum that I’m willing to aim for: if my learners meet the objectives, I consider that a success. Of course, I hope that they do more than that but that’s not always possible. So one of the reasons I use objectives is that they help me keep my expectations realistic.
Another reason for using objectives is to enhance motivation. I usually review the objectives at the beginning of a class and I find that has two main benefits. First, it lets people know what to expect, which reduces anxiety. When anxiety is too high, learning is inhibited and anything that help people calm down increasing their sense of safety. Second, it tells the learners how the following information is going to be useful for them, which demonstrates that it is relevant. Building both safety and relevance is essential if we want to foster motivation.
When I develop objectives, I always start with this phrase:
By the end of this class, the participants will be able to:
The rest of the objective is completion of the sentence. That sounds pretty simple, and in many ways, it is simple. But as any artist can tell you, the simple things are sometimes the most difficult ones to get right. A well-planned objective is active, observable, achievable and realistic. Let me break these down a bit.
Active: the verb that follows the phrase above should be an active verb. Some easy ones to use are explain, compare, describe, discuss, demonstrate, and share. These are all active because they describe things that the learner is expected to do. This is important because it reminds the teacher that learning is most effective when it becomes an active experience, rather than a passive “sit there and listen to me talk” situation.
When we’re talking about teaching adults, this is especially important because adults don’t have a lot of time. People have jobs, kids, lives to manage, bills to pay, and other demands on their time. As a result, adults consistently want to know what benefit they’ll get if they invest their time and money in a class. When you create an active objective, you’re telling your potential audience what the payoff will be and and that generates motivation.
Caffarella’s Planning Programs for Adult Learners has an excellent chart of active verbs, as well as a lot of other useful information.
Observable: As educators, most of want people to learn. Otherwise, we wouldn’t bother creating and teaching classes. But there’s no way to know what someone has learned if they don’t show us. Fortunately, there are lots of ways they can do that. They can talk about it, write an essay, build or create something, or show us. All of those are things that we can see or observe in some other way.
If a learner is meeting an objective and we can’t observe it, there’s no way for us to know that they’ve done it. If we create an objective like “by the end of this class, the participants will be able to know three ways to cook spinach,” that’s not so useful. But if we make it “by the end of this class, the participants will be able to demonstrate three ways to cook spinach,” that’s much more helpful.
When our learners can show what they’ve learned, they’re more likely to feel successful, which enhances and builds future success. When we can see that our learners have attained the skills that we set out to teach, we’re much more likely to feel engaged and successful. Everybody wins when observable objectives are met.
Achievable: We only have our learners in our classes for a limited time, so we need to create objectives that someone can achieve within that timeframe. Of course, if we’re teaching a multi-session class, we can give homework instead of having to have the learners do everything in the class sessions. But there are still limits on how much time and energy people will have for their homework. It’s important to make objectives difficult enough to be a challenge, but not so difficult that people can’t complete them in the available time.
Realistic: There’s a reason that CPR is taught on realistic dummies and pilots learn how to fly in simulators. When the learning experience more closely mimics the real-life use of the information, learning is enhanced. This means that objectives need to be as realistic as possible. Of course, there’s usually a limit to how accurate the simulation can be, so we also need to have realistic expectations of ourselves and our learners.
According to Mel Silberman, there are three types of objectives. Choosing the right one for your topic and your audience is essential:
Affective goals involve the formation of attitudes, feelings and preferences. Use these when you want to foster changes in emotions or beliefs. (some example verbs: to challenge, to defend, to question)
Behavioral goals include the development of competence in the actual performance of procedures, methods and techniques. Use these when you want to build skills. (some example verbs: to demonstrate, to apply, to create)
Cognitive goals consist of acquisition of information and concepts related to the course content (i.e. comprehension and analysis). Use these to expand knowledge. (some example verbs: to name, to compare, to evaluate)
Objectives should also follow the logic of the material. If the information goes in a particular order, the objectives should follow that pattern. For some topics, they increase in complexity. For example, a class on using spreadsheets should start with the basics and build from there. For other topics, there’s a chronological order. A class on cooking should start with the beginning and move through the process to the end. In either case, the objectives should mirror that logical flow.
I find that objectives work best when I create no more than one per hour of class time. It’s easy to overextend and try to do too much and this is generally a useful limit. If you’re getting through an objective in less than an hour, odds are that you made it too simple.
When I teach multi-session classes, such as a semester-long course, I’ll create overall objectives to describe the trajectory of the course, and then I’ll develop them for the individual sessions.
When I’m designing a class, everything in my outline directly contributes to meeting the objectives. If something isn’t part of the objectives and it’s important, then I need to change the objectives. If I can’t or don’t want to change the objectives, then the information simply isn’t important enough to include. Sometimes, this seems like an artificial limit, but I find that it helps me keep my outlines lean. That forces me to be sure to know my material and use my outlines as a reminder of what I want to cover, instead of relying on it as a script.
After I’ve finished planning, I’ll go back and make sure that everything in my outline is related to the objectives. Sometimes, other ideas sneak in, so it’s worth checking.
Objectives don’t have to be a straitjacket. In a way, they describe the “as the crow flies” path that never happens in real life. Instead, I find that classes veer off to the side as learners ask questions or bring up related topics. After addressing whatever comes up, I bring us back to the objective. So it’s a zig-zag path, and that’s ok. In my experience, this is an excellent way to integrate both the overall goals that I bring to the class and the individual concerns and ideas that my learners bring.
Having said that, it’s quite common for topics to come up that aren’t really relevant for more than one or two people. In those situations, I use the objectives to set limits. For example, I might say, “that’s off-topic, so let’s talk after class” or “that’s an important point and we’ll be getting into that next time.” I find that objectives offer focus and boundaries, both of which make it a lot easier to manage a class.
I like to make sure that my learners know what the objectives are at the beginning of the class. I might include them in a handout or post them on a flip-chart, and I always start each session by reviewing them. Sometimes, I’ll read them verbatim and other times, I’ll say something like “today, we’re going to explore…” I’ve never noticed that one approach is better than the other, so see what works for you.
Every now and then, I’ll start teaching and realize that my objectives simply don’t work. Maybe they’re too simple. Maybe they’re too complex. Maybe the learners have different needs than I thought they did. Whatever the reason, I’ve been creating and using objectives for long enough that I can throw the irrelevant ones out and improvise. That can be a challenging thing to do, but I’ve had enough practice at teaching that I can almost always make it work. Part of why I can do that is that I have enough experience at developing objectives that I can come up with a new one on the fly. I’ve spoken with other educators who say similar things, so even if you’re resistant to using objectives, I still recommend using them, if only because the practice can make it easier to improvise when you need to.
If you’ve never created or used objectives in your classes, I definitely suggest giving it a try. The first few times, it can be a bit challenging, but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll see how much it can improve your planning and your teaching.