Lesson objectives in science lessons

“I am afraid that your lesson was not a good one as you failed to share your learning objectives at the start of the lesson”. Umm. This tick box approach to lesson observations is a dangerous path to pursue, recognised as long ago as in 1987 by Lee Shulman. I have yet to see any science lesson where sharing detailed objectives at the start of the lesson has really helped learning. For the most part, the objective slide sits like an obstacle that everyone in the room must endure, without really understanding the point of it – I am tempted to make a flippant comparison to the pre-flight safety demonstration heard for the nth time but I fear this analogy will soon become unstuck.

Lesson objectives in science

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

The 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 makes 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 I don’t think it’s going to help you much. For this to be useful you need to have an understanding of these terms already.

Who are objectives for?

So let’s scrap objectives and just sit back, relax and enjoy the lesson? I’m afraid not. Objectives are in fact a critically important part of a good science lesson but I think their value is for the teacher and not the student. Lesson objectives are important in helping teachers describe exactly what knowledge and skills students need to know and be able to do. Once objectives are defined, we can then plan lessons with activities that best teach each defined objective.

Vague objectives

Vague objectives like “be able to describe the differences between plant and animal cells” are not especially useful to teachers. In fact we often see this same objective at Yr 7, Yr9 and Yr12. From this objective it’s unclear as to what we are teaching. Are we including centrioles, cellulose or evolutionary origin? Are differences in scale going to be explored? If we are to ensure objectives are going to be useful to plan lessons they must be complete, or at least offer a sense of completeness that articulates fundamental knowledge you want learnt so that schemes of work can articulate progression in science over time and in this way the curriculum achieves a sense of coherence.

But how to we do this in a practical way? I have found the ideas below helpful in better articulating what students need to know and do – this doesn’t need to be shared with students at the start of the lesson but could be revealed later on. Levelling objectives is fairly meaningless, sub levelling them is bonkers! (see the page on summative grading in science).

  1. List key words for each lesson, ideally you will have departmentally agreed definitions for each word. For example if the key words in the lesson above were: chlorophyll, cellulose, permanent vacuole and centrioles then objectives are becoming clearer.
  2. Write your lesson objectives as key questions that you would expect your students to be able to answer at the end of the lesson. To provide real clarity, write out your expected answers as well. The specification can be a useful document to refer to here.
  3. Write a learning goal for each lesson that articulates the big picture aim that makes sense to the students – this is what you can share 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 can’t be useful to both teachers and students – they need to do different things

Split screen objectives for skills

And finally, I think it’s a really good idea to use split screen objectives in lessons/SOWs to clearly signal to teachers that we are focusing on both knowledge and skills. A lesson where students separate salt from sand/salt mixture requires some really clear skills objectives – 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 we will not develop discrete skills over time, we will just end up doing them.

Further reading

Shulman, L., 1987. Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform.Harvard educational review, 57(1), pp.1-23.

  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?