New Slide: Understanding Learning Outcomes

Here’s an interesting question for you:  If I dropped into your classroom tomorrow and asked your students what skills or key concepts they were working to master, how would they answer?

Would the results be the same if I stopped into other classrooms on your hallway?  Would some students know more about the learning expectations that your school and district have set for them?  Would they know less than your students?  Why?

The reason I ask is because I’m a stubborn son-of-a-gun who worked pretty hard to resist the ever-so-popular “You-Must-Post-Your-Learning-Objective-On-Your-Board-Every-Day” craze that has been sweeping education for the past few years.  At first, I just didn’t bother to post my objective at all, hoping no one would bother me.  Once my administrators started to call me out for not having my objective posted, I wrote a generic one up and left it on the board for about three months.

Talk about passive-aggressive, huh?

(download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

The source of my resistance was simple:  No one had ever convinced me that writing my objective on the board every day—something that was difficult to do in my language arts class, where learning objectives aren’t sequential and where lessons can address multiple objectives in one period—would pay off in tangible student learning results.  And one thing I’ve learned is that practices or policies that require more work had better darn well be worth it!

My other beef was that we were required to write objectives in a way that I KNEW my students wouldn’t understand—the language was just too sophisticated for 12-year-olds.  “They’d have a better chance of figuring out what they were supposed to be learning if I wrote those things in hieroglyphics!” I’d argue, “So what’s the point of spending my already limited time on something I know won’t work?”

Being the kind of guy I am, I took my resistance a step further, reading about a dozen books on assessment trying to find an expert who said that posting objectives was pointless.  I figured that would be reason enough to end a practice that I openly doubted.

Here’s the hitch:  There ISN’T A SINGLE expert that thinks posting objectives is unimportant!

In fact, every book that I read argued that posting objectives is one of the easiest way to improve student learning results.  The real clincher for me:  Bob Marzano—an edu-researcher-extraordinaire whose work I respect greatly—has shown that making students aware of expected outcomes of classroom lessons can increase student learning by 20%.

That’s when I finally made a commitment to working out a system for communicating expected outcomes to my kids in student-friendly language and to sharing those outcomes as often as possible.  While I still haven’t made daily communication around learning targets a part of my teaching routine (routines are hard to change for stubborn people, y’all), the parts are in place and I know my instruction will change in a positive way as a result.

Need any help in making YOUR learning goals transparent to your students?

Then check out these two Radical posts:

Writing Student Friendly Learning Goals

More on Writing Student Friendly Learning Goals

You might also be interested in this sample of a unit overview sheet that I’ve started using with my students in class:

Western Europe Learning Targets

Hope this helps you to embrace sharing expected outcomes with your students sooner than I did!  It’s a practical strategy with proven results that you can start using tomorrow.

8 thoughts on “New Slide: Understanding Learning Outcomes

  1. Ariel Sacks

    Interesting conversation. My one philosophical issue with essential questions is, who is asking the questions? The same could be said for objectives. Who decides on the objectives? The teacher, of course. To me, that is okay–it’s usually a necessary part of planning–but nothing to get excited about. What’s exciting is when the student sets a goal or asks a question that will then guide his or her own learning. That’s what Renee’s comp. student did with games. The key part of that is that the gamer chose to become good at gaming and hen employed a reflective process for achieving the goal. I only sometimes am able to structure my class so that students determine objectives within a unit or ask the essential questions, but when I do, I’m certain that the learning is deeper and more lasting.
    When we are looking for specific, predetermined outcomes, like on achievement tests, then students need to be taught to reach for those specific outcomes, and making them aware of the outcomes makes the process much more efficient. I have no trouble believing Marzano’s statistic of 20% higher achievement. But remember what the measure is–most likely a standardized test. When it comes to critical thinking, however, if we tell students what the outcome should be, don’t we narrow the students’ thinking about a particular problem or the scope of what students might create? An interesting text is Eleanor Duckworth’s essay, The Having of Wonderful Ideas. She makes the case that exploration and play that do not have predetermined outcomes are necessary to the development of students’ critical thinking and original ideas.
    I struggle a lot with this contradiction. I’m not a purist in either camp. I post an objective every day because I’m supposed to and sometimes it seems helpful. Other times it’s a formality.

  2. sweber

    Re: “My other beef was that we were required to write objectives in a way that I KNEW my students wouldn’t understand—the language was just too sophisticated for 12-year-olds.”
    I still feel this way regarding posting objectives and eduspeak on the board or on the screen.
    I prefer the following method for helping students develop understanding of the district’s ‘guaranteed and viable’ curriculum and understanding of the state standards: Essential Questions.
    I don’t believe that students will ‘understand’ because the board or screen reads Students will understand…….It seems to spoil the fun when you tell me ‘what’ to learn and understand prior to the journey. I think it is similar to telling me the end of the story and then telling me to begin at chapter one.
    I don’t believe that writing the Enduring Understanding or Generalization on the board or screen is beneficial either. I believe that the Enduring Understanding or Generalization is important for teachers. These statements outline ‘what’ we want students to know and do. When students answer the Essential Questions through performance, projects, debates, essays, presentations, and other formative assessments, then we know that students are getting closer to the Generalization(s) or Enduring Understanding(s).
    Additional Information Related to These Topics Is Available From:
    H. Lynn Erickson – Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom
    Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe – Understanding by Design
    H.H. Jacobs – Mapping the big picture integrating curriculum and assessment K-12
    Walter Parker – Renewing the Social Studies Curriculum

  3. sweber

    I enjoyed reading your reflections on identifying key concepts and skills. I also enjoyed reading the posts on this topic. Personally, I am a big fan of Understanding by Design. The UbD template is time consuming, but it seems to help teachers plan for understanding. UbD is not as scripted as other planning/learning templates, because it requires teachers to plan for ‘uncoverage’ versus coverage. – This is a blog entry that I wrote which addresses K-12 Curriculum Development: What Should Students Know and Be Able To Do?
    A great article for K-12 Curriculum Developers was written by George Nelson (2001). Nelson’s article titled Choosing Content That’s Worth Knowing provides educators and other stakeholders with essential questions for curriculum development.
    To view Nelson’s article online, visit
    The other topic that Bill writes about is Professional Learning Communities. I believe that teachers should have flexibility in ‘how’ they teach key concepts, skills and understandings. However, when teachers identify key concepts, skills and understandings, I think that the PLC model/approach offers the most potential for increasing student achievement.
    As always, thank you for challenging my thinking and helping me reflect on issues related to teaching and learning.

  4. Diane Quirk

    In addition to Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works you might also take a look at Improving Student Achievement One Teacher at a Time by Jane E. Pollock (a former colleague of Marzano). She talks about lesson design and the importance of beginning with a goal and aligning all parts of the lesson back to the goal. Makes sense and keeps both teacher and student focused on the learning goal.

  5. Renee

    I teach HS English and Dual Enrollment (College Freshman Comp I & II). One of my Comp I students submitted the following as part of a paper, and it’s haunted me for days:
    “The first thing a gamer does when starting a new game is try to comprehend the main objective, and then what must be done to reach that objective. This is where a gamer’s ability is tested and then improved. If by any reason the player is unable to conquer the challenge, the most common thing to do is try again and discover the reason for the previous failure.”
    I’ve lain awake for the last several nights trying to figure out how to harness this in my English classes. They know how to do it and the ways in which they assimilate information – well, 21st century classrooms and all that. But I’m lost on the transition from my still paper-based class. How do I set objectives that will entice my students to apply these skills that they use fervently on games every day?
    Not a rhetorical question, BTW.

  6. Matt Townsley

    Great post, Bill. It reminded me to read (for the 100th time) a quote by John Goodlad, “…learning appears to be enhanced when students understand what is expected of them, get recognition for their work, learn quickly about their errors, and receive guidance in improving their performance”
    – A Place Called School (p. 111)
    You hit the “when students understand what is expected of them” part of the quote. Feedback (and “feed forward”) are the second and third parts of the quote. Do you have any bright ideas on how to address those? 🙂

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