Lesson objectives – what are we measuring?

“The lesson objectives could have been written a bit more measurable.”


My questions I want to answer in this blog post are the following:

  • What does that statement mean?
  • Do learning objectives need to be written so that they’re measurable?
  • How should we write lesson intentions to maximise learning?


Or should I set myself an objective? By the end of this post I will:

  • Be able to identify what a measurable lesson objective is.
  • Be able to analyse the impact of measurable objectives.
  • Be able to identify different methods of writing lesson intentions.


The comment in the title was made during a recent joint observation. Whilst on the surface it appeared to make sense, upon reflection, I’m not convinced by it and would like to explore it further.

Current educational ideologies (particularly in vocational education) lead to a primarily product based curricula, whereby meeting behavioural objectives forms the basis of our teaching, with teachers accountable for and judged on their ability to produce results as opposed to the more developmental, process based curricula. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, in fact, I’m broadly in favour of this type of curricula,  but whatever curriculum approach is chosen, I do have a problem with being told that lesson objectives/outcomes/intentions/anything else you want to call them, should look a certain way. Many in the FE and Skills sector (perhaps education more generally) see learning as a linear and singular process of moving learners from A to B in a lesson and once they’ve achieved a desired outcome, then it is assumed that the learners have learnt. This view is wrong. Learning is liminal (particularly in post-16 education), with learners in a continual stage of development towards a longer term outcome over a series of lessons. I’ve said before that if ever a definition of learning could be agreed, it would certainly involve something about knowledge acquisition and probably something to do with long term memory and being able to retrieve information. Therefore, learning does not happen in isolated lessons.

 As David Didau (2015, p.279) notes:

all too often our learning intentions are lesson menus: here is what you should know or be able to do by the end of today’s lesson. Unless we have very low aspirations for our students, they are unlikely to do more than merely mimic the understanding or expertise we want them to master.’ David goes on to say thatif we were to share our intention for students to learn threshold concepts, then we could tell them that it might take them weeks to wrap their heads around such troublesome knowledge’.

This is also supported by Hussey and Smith, who argue that:

‘learning outcomes cannot be defined with the kind of precision that has been supposed, that they stand in need of interpretation within a context… The idea, currently popular—that first year degree students must describe, second year students must explain and evaluation should characterise their work in the third year—must be replaced with the idea that these activities are visited and revisited as the students’ progress and in accordance with the requirements of the subject matter.’

Indeed Hattie (2012) cites a very low (0.12) effect-size for behavioural objectives. With the aforementioned in mind, the whole notion of measurable objectives in a single lesson is beginning to look absurd. 


According to Hattie (2012) however, there are five essential components to learning intentions and success criteria to support effective learning, these are: challenge, commitment, confidence, high expectations; and conceptual understanding. I have said before that I’m not convinced about success criteria here, but in Wiliam and Thompson’s (2007) work, they hold the work of Wiggins and McTighe (2000) in high regard. This work advocates a two-stage approach to creating and sharing the learning intentions with learners. This includes clarifying the learning goals (what is worthy and requiring understanding?), and establishing success criteria (what would count as evidence of understanding?). Perhaps it is the success criteria where things become measurable?


I think about my own practice as a teacher trainer. If I were to teach say, formative assessment and set my objectives as:

‘To understand the 5 key strategies of formative assessment’ 

This is certainly worthy of understanding. Then if I were to make the success criteria measurable:

‘learners will be able to identify 5 key strategies for formative assessment’

 ‘learners will be able to explain the 5 key strategies of formative assessment’.

Whilst this is measurable and learners may be able to do both of these by the end of the lesson, this would be merely a performance and not learning, moreover, there may be learners that can critically analyse 3 strategies (beyond the success criteria) and know very little about the other 2. Does this mean that the lesson has failed? Of course not – it all seems rather short sighted and restrictive.


Fuch and Fuch inform us that:

‘teachers may prefer short-term goal measurement because it is easier to understand and it guides instruction more directly by providing information about when to progress from one skill to another [however] short-term goal measurement may be misleading: While students master a series of instructional objectives, progress on more global indices of achievement may be limited, failing to reflect this gain’.

For this reason, I ask myself whether learners would benefit more from a question or testing a hypothesis over a series of lessons:

What makes formative assessment effective? (question)

Formative assessment is only effective when feedback is provided (hypothesis)


With something like the above, the lesson intention is broad in a sense that it allows for a range of outcomes in the lesson and over a series of lessons, but tight enough to focus the learners on the content and be clear with what they’re learning about. Clarity is key. I believe that learners should know what they are doing in the lesson and why they are doing it. I mean you wouldn’t bake a cake without knowing the kind of thing you’re after and you wouldn’t go on a journey without knowing the destination, but does the way you write this on your lesson plan or white board really benefit anyone? It becomes a tick box approach – something we need to move away from in education.


Oh by the way, did we all meet the lesson objectives?


Unlinked reading:

Didau, D. (2015). What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishing Limited.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Oxon, UK: Routledge.


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