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Designing & Teaching Learning Goals & Objectives

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Design and teach effective learning goals and objectives by following strategies based on the strongest research available. This book includes a summary of key research behind these classroom practices and shows how to implement them using step-by-step hands-on strategies. Short quizzes help readers assess their understanding of the instructional best practices explained in each section.

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9 Chapters

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Chapter 1 - Research and Theory


Before addressing the research and theory on goals and objectives, it is useful to consider the issue of terminology. The terms goals and objectives have been used by different people in different ways. For some, the term goal applies only to the overarching purpose of curriculum, and the term objective is reserved for day-to-day instructional targets. In the research and theoretical worlds, these terms tend to be used interchangeably for general and specific purposes. In this book, the terms will be used interchangeably. However, as the following discussion illustrates, the focus of this book is on day-to-day classroom instruction.

The importance of goals and objectives in education was established as far back as the first half of the last century by the educational philosopher and evaluation expert Ralph Tyler (1949a, 1949b). For Tyler, a well-constructed objective should contain a clear reference to a specific type of knowledge as well as reference to the behaviors that demonstrate proficiency relative to that knowledge. Prior to Tyler's recommendations, educators typically did not identify specific areas of information and skill as targets for student learning. Instead, broad topic areas such as “probability” or “World War II” represented the most specific level of curricular organization.


Chapter 2 - Developing Specific Learning Goals and Tasks


In chapter 1, we saw that goal specificity is an important aspect of designing effective goals. In general, specific goals have a more powerful effect on student achievement than do general goals. Goal specificity begins with making a distinction between learning goals and the classroom activities and assignments that will support those goals. Stated differently, there is often confusion between goals, activities, and assignments. For example, consider the following list. It typifies what you might find in the learning goals section of some teachers' planning books.

1.   Students will successfully complete the exercises in the back of chapter 3.

2.   Students will create a metaphor representing the food pyramid.

3.   Students will be able to determine subject/verb agreement in a variety of simple, compound, and complete sentences.

4.   Students will understand the defining characteristics of fables, fairy tales, and tall tales.

5.   Students will investigate the relationship between speed of air flow and lift provided by an airplane wing.


Chapter 3 - Developing Learning Goals at Different Levels of Difficulty in the Service of Differentiation


In chapter 1 on research and theory, we saw that goals should be at the right difficulty level to enhance student achievement. They can't be too easy, or they will bore students. They can't be too difficult, or they will frustrate students. Instead, they must challenge students but be perceived as attainable.

In a classroom with twenty-five or more students, developing learning goals at the right level of difficulty can pose significant obstacles for teachers. Given that students will be at different levels of understanding or skill in terms of the content being studied, how can a teacher write a goal for all students that satisfies the criterion “challenging but attainable”? The answer is fairly straightforward. For a given topic in a unit of instruction, construct goals at multiple levels of difficulty.

To a great extent, this chapter provides a framework for differentiation. Carol Ann Tomlinson's work in books such as The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (Tomlinson, 1999) and How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (Tomlinson, 2004) has demonstrated the importance of differentiating instruction in a class to meet the diverse needs of students in the class. From the perspective of this book, differentiating begins with designing learning goals at different levels of difficulty.


Chapter 4 - Organizing Learning Goals into a Scale


In chapter 3, we presented a framework that allows teachers to design learning goals at four levels of difficulty: retrieval, comprehension, analysis, and knowledge utilization. Recall from the discussion at the beginning of that chapter that the reasons a teacher would want to design goals at different levels of complexity are twofold: (1) for goals to be effective instructional tools, they must be challenging but attainable by students; and (2) given that students in any classroom will have differing levels of understanding regarding a topic in a unit of instruction, the teacher must design multiple goals at different levels of complexity to meet the “challenging but attainable” criterion. We also briefly introduced the notion of organizing goals into a scale (see table 3.2, page 27). This chapter describes how to organize learning goals into a rubric or scale using the framework provided in chapter 3.

Identify a Target Goal for the Class

The process of creating multiple goals organized in a scale begins by identifying a target goal for a unit of instruction. As we saw in chapter 2, these goals must usually be gleaned from state standards documents, district standards documents, or district lists of essential learner outcomes. Again, as we saw in chapter 2, a teacher must keep in mind whether the goal involves declarative knowledge or procedural knowledge and then write the goal in an appropriate format. To illustrate, a high school social studies teacher might identify the following learning goal:


Chapter 5 - Teaching in Asystem of Learning Goals


If teachers follow the direction provided in the previous four chapters, they will have a well-articulated system of learning goals as well as assessment tasks that go with these learning goals. As you have seen, learning goals can be organized into scales that help differentiate between levels of competence. This allows for a very powerful approach to instruction and assessment that employs options that are not available in the absence of a system of learning goals. In this chapter we consider two views of this new approach: one from the perspective of an entire year, the other from the perspective of a specific unit of instruction. We consider the year-long perspective first.

Learning Goals Over the Course of a Year

The curriculum over the course of a year is composed of individual units of instruction. Within a single unit of instruction a teacher typically addresses a few academic learning goals and even fewer noncognitive goals. Exactly how many goals should be identified is indeterminate. That noted, it makes some intuitive sense that a two-week unit of instruction can address somewhere between two and three goals without taxing the resources of individual teachers and the capacities of students. Thus, on average, a unit of instruction could handle 2.5 learning goals. If one extends this thinking, the entire year can address some 45 learning goals because the school year is typically thirty-six weeks long. If units are two weeks long, then 18 units will be executed during a year—each with 2 to 3 learning goals.




The system described in this book, when embraced fully by an individual teacher, has some very powerful implications for classroom instruction. As you have seen, a classroom organized around learning goals provides students with clear targets for their learning and scales that articulate the simpler content and the more complex content for each learning goal. Additionally, such a classroom uses cooperative structures to establish an environment in which students are resource providers and tutors for one another, and it does not penalize students for initial confusion or a slow start. Finally, a classroom organized around learning goals puts no limits on what a student can accomplish in a given year. Any student can move as rapidly as he or she wishes through the curriculum for a given year and even beyond if he or she so desires. By carefully tailoring learning goals and teaching them in a system that encourages pacing flexibility and student empowerment, teachers can get an accurate and complete picture of each student's improvement and proficiency as well as the improvement and proficiency of the entire class. Armed with such knowledge, teachers will be well prepared to help students raise their achievement.


Appendix A - Answers to Exercises


Answers to Exercise 2.1
Learning Goals vs. Activities and Assignments

1. Students will be able to recognize the protagonist, theme, and voice of a piece of literature.

This is a learning goal. There is a desired outcome specified (recognizing the protagonist, theme, and voice of a piece of literature).

2. Students will produce a book report on a book of their choice, including a table of contents, with proper pagination and format throughout.

This is primarily an activity. The cognitive or behavioral outcome is not clearly specified. There is no particular level of understanding or ability that is needed to produce a book report with these specifications. There are no clear standards for judging the quality of the product.

3. Given a set of coordinates, students will be able to graph the slope of a line.

This is a learning goal. There are clearly defined cognitive and psychomotor skills that students must demonstrate.

4. Students will compare and describe the slopes of two lines.


Appendix B - What is an Effect Size?


Reports on educational research use terms such as meta-analysis and effect size (ES). While these terms are without doubt useful to researchers, they can be confusing and even frustrating for the practitioner. So what does meta-analysis mean exactly? What is an effect size?

A meta-analysis is a summary, or synthesis, of relevant research findings. It looks at all of the individual studies done on a particular topic and summarizes them. This is helpful to educators in that a meta-analysis provides more and stronger support than does a single analysis (meta-analysis is literally an analysis of analyses).

An average effect size tells us about the results across all of the individual studies examined. For example, let's say the purpose of the meta-analysis is to examine multiple studies regarding the effect of clear learning goals on student achievement (that is, the effect of X on Y). An average effect size reports the results of all of the included studies to tell us whether or not clear learning goals improve student achievement and, if so, by how much.


Appendix C - Terms and Phrases from the new Taxonomy


Level 4

Knowledge Utilization


Select the best among the following alternatives

Which among the following would be the best

What is the best way

Which of these is most suitable


How would you overcome


Develop a strategy to

Figure out a way to

How will you reach your goal under these conditions


Generate and test

Test the idea that

What would happen if

How would you test that

How would you determine if

How can this be explained

Based on the experiment, what can be predicted



Find out about

Take a position on

What are the differing features of

How did this happen

Why did this happen

What would have happened if

Level 3



Compare and contrast





Create an analogy



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