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How helpful are learning objectives?

How helpful are learning objectives?

3 min read
  • The science of learning

By the end of the lesson, you will be able to…

These 11 words often come up at the start of a lesson, setting out the learning objectives for students. But are they actually helpful, or just a waste of your lesson time?

Well, let’s have a look at what the research suggests, and what the best ways to use them in your classroom are…

What does the research say?

Researchers set out three studies to find out what are the benefits of learning objectives and what are the most effective way of presenting them.

They found that students who were given learning objectives performed much better when tested on the new material in comparison to their peers who did not have any objectives. One reason for this is that learning objectives direct students’ attention to the key information to look out for, which can:

Usually, learning objectives are set out as key statements on what students should achieve. However, the researchers found that when this statement was converted to a question, students performed much better on the test. Why is this? Well, having questions about the material that students have not learnt yet (also known as “pre-questions“) can promote deeper learning.

At first it may sound counterintuitive, but this technique has shown to be very effective. In another study, researchers found that students who were asked pre-questions could recall almost 50% more than their peers who did not. One reason for this is that pre-questions allow students to review relevant material they previously learnt, which allows more elaborate encoding of the new information.

How can you apply these findings in the classroom?

Convert learning objectives to pre-questions

Instead of setting out a list of things that students should achieve by the end of the lesson, convert these to questions. This could be in the format of multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank or short-answer questions.

However, it’s important you do not provide the answers. This might sound frustrating for the students, but the researchers found that giving feedback caused the students to perform worse in the test they took at the end of the lesson. One reason for this is that students are less likely to pay attention in class as they become over reliant on the feedback. They might have even memorised the answers, giving them a false impression that they have learnt the material.

Encourage students to use learning objectives for revision

After you’ve provided your learning objectives as pre-questions, your students can even use them as studying prompts. Using questions for revision is an example of retrieval practice, which has been proven to be one of the most effective revision strategies. Generating an answer to a question can:

  • Improve students’ memory, retention and recall.
  • Increase their confidence.
  • Reduce exam nerves.
  • Helps students identify what they do and don’t know.
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A word of warning

When setting the pre-questions, make sure that they are at the right level for the students. If they are too easy, your students may not benefit from them and might get distracted.

However, if the questions are too difficult, it can reinforce negative beliefs. For example, students may start thinking “I am not clever enough for this subject”. This way of thinking can be self-destructive – it is essential to make sure that the questions set are at the right standard.

Final thoughts

Research shows that learning objectives are helpful as they capture students’ attention, which can make them more engaged and can improve their academic performance. However, when turning these learning objectives into pre-questions, students can benefit much more. Even if they get these questions wrong, they can still benefit from them as they go through the process of activating related prior knowledge.

However, avoid giving the answers to these questions, which could give your students a false impression that they know the material, and make them less likely to engage with the class as a result.