Lesson objectives in science lessons

Many teachers start their science lesson by sharing lesson objectives. But is this always a good thing? In this post below I consider some of the limitations of lesson objectives and how to mitigate these.

Today we are going to learn about things you don’t yet know about

One problem is that, for the most part, the lesson objectives are describing what new knowledge and new skills students are going to learn. Because this is new learning, talking about it at the start of a lesson can make little sense to students. For example, if I told you that today we are going to identify a monophyletic group and compare this to a paraphyletic group it’s not going to help you much unless you already know what these terms refer to. For this to be useful, you need to have an understanding of these concepts already.

Who are objectives for?

So should objectives be scrapped? The answer is no. Learning objectives are a critically important part of planning a science lesson but their value is typically for the teacher and not the student. Lesson objectives are important in helping teachers articulate, to themselves, exactly what they want students to learn. Once objectives are defined, it is possible to plan lessons by selecting activities that best teach and assess those aims.

The issue with vague objectives

Vague objectives like “be able to describe the differences between plant and animal cells” are not especially useful to teachers when planning lessons. In fact, this same lesson objective often appears in Yr7, Yr9 and Yr12. From this objective, it’s unclear what is being taught. Are students learning about centrioles, cellulose or evolutionary origins of cells? Are differences in scale being explored? If objectives are going to be useful to plan lessons they must articulate what knowledge and skills students are learning. This should be in sufficient detail to realise the model of progression outlined in the curriculum. In this way, individual lesson objectives play an important role in creating an overall sense of coherence.

But how can this be done in a practical way?

I have found the ideas below helpful in better articulating what students need to know and do when creating objectives. These objectives don’t need to be shared with students at the start of the lesson but could be revealed later on. Assigning grades to lesson objectives is problematic (see the page on summative grading in science).

Framing learning objectives in science

  1. Identify key words/concepts for each lesson. For example, chlorophyll, cellulose, permanent vacuole and centrioles.
  2. Write your lesson objectives as key questions that you would expect your students to be able to answer by the end of the lesson. To help your planning, write out your expected answers as well. Refer to the curriculum as you do this and consider what students will need to know and do to be successful in subsequent lessons.
  3. Write a learning goal for each lesson that articulates the big picture aim – you can share this with students at the start e.g. today we are going to find out why I can melt ice but I can’t melt diamond.
  4. Remember that the same learning objectives are unlikely to be useful to both teachers and students – they need to do different things.

Split-screen objectives for skills

And finally, I think it can be helpful to use split-screen objectives in lessons to articulate the disciplinary ideas (e.g. concepts of validity, reliability and scientific enquiry) alongside substantive knowledge. You may also want to articulate what specific procedures students are learning. For example, when learning to separate salt from a sand/salt mixture what do students need to know and do e.g. fold filter paper, use a clamp and stand? It’s not enough to just state that you want students to separate out a mixture as, otherwise, they may not develop expertise in discrete skills over time, they may just end up doing them.

  1. Planning lessons: the EPIBA approach
  2. Clearly defined lesson objectives
  3. The Do Now
  4. Activate prior knowledge
  5. Challenge your students
  6. Use a context
  7. Challenge all students appropriately 
  8. Use direct instruction to provide clear explanations
  9. Model abstract ideas in concrete ways
  10. Use questioning to probe understanding
  11. Check for understanding – give and get feedback
  12. Troubleshooting – why did it go wrong?