Lesson Aims/Stage Aims/Learning Objectives/Learning Intentions: you’ve encountered them on every CELTA/observation lesson plan you’ve had to write, and yet they remain one of the hardest things to do well. It can be tempting to try to overlook writing them completely – if you don’t have to write them, then don’t.
Nowadays I routinely write lesson aims for the majority of the classes I teach – through choice, not because I have to. Why would I do such a thing? Well-written lesson aims can make a huge difference to whether your students learn (and both you and they know that learning is taking place) or not. In short, good learning objectives can be the difference between a good lesson and a bad one. So, how can you make sure your lesson aims fall into the ‘good’ camp, rather than the ‘bad’ one?
One of the easiest ways to understand what ‘good’ aims look like is by looking at an example – and also by seeing examples of what not to do! So I’m going to put myself on the line here. These lesson aims are real examples: some of my main aims for observed lessons during my first year of teaching. Oh boy. I’m not proud of them.
To be honest, these aims are pretty bad – and I’m amazed I even passed the observation for the final one (complete with spelling mistake). They’re vague, don’t focus on the right things, and wouldn’t be very helpful if I’m trying to figure out if my students have learned anything or not. So, let’s look at some of the problems.
Why are these aims quite so unhelpful?
Well, not all of them are aims, for a start. They tell us about what tasks or activities the students will be doing, but not why they will be doing them.
They talk about what the teacher will be doing, not what the students will be doing.
They aren’t specific enough.
There’s no allowance for differentiation.
There’s no way of telling if some of these aims have been achieved. Students will ‘practise vocabulary’ – but do they understand it? Can they produce it? Have they actually learned anything?
So, we’ve seen ‘what not to do’. How do we make these aims better?
Compare the lesson aims above with these aims below, which I wrote for an observed lesson as part of the Young Learner extension course I took this time last year.
They look a bit different, don’t they?
Let’s look at what these lesson aims do better:
How can you improve your own lesson aims: so they look more like the ones above, and less like the ones at the beginning of the post? You could Google examples and then try to base all the lesson aims you ever write on those models… but that’s time-consuming and not tremendously practical.
What can you do on a day-to-day basis? This is far from my own idea (today I’m just the messenger) but in order to write good lesson aims, think of the acronym: ‘SMART’.
You see where my final lesson aims are far clearer than the ones preceding them? That’s because they’re far more specific. If you want your students to achieve your lesson aims, you’re going to have to be clear about exactly what it is that you want them to do. They’re going to learn new vocabulary? What vocab is it? What are they going to be able to do with that vocab at the end of the lesson that they can’t do at the beginning?
You need to be able to tell if your students have achieved the aim or not, and therefore it needs to have some kind of measurable result. You can’t tell if your students have ‘learned vocabulary’ because you can’t see into their brains. However, you can tell if they can recognise the words/produce them. A measurable aim is something that you can say ‘Yes, my students did this’, ‘No, my students didn’t do this’ – or something in the middle.
Achievable (by ALL the students)
This is where differentiation comes into play. Whatever you’re going to do in the lesson needs to involve the right level of challenge – and that isn’t just about not making it too difficult, but also not making it too easy (don’t try to teach 25 new vocabulary words to 6 year-olds, but equally don’t just teach them one new word either). You might even include elements of differentiation in your plan: Some students will…, most students will…, but the main element of your aim should be achievable by all your students.
Is it linked with a topic/activity that students have already studied? Is it something that they have expressed an interest in? Is it a skill that they need (for example study skills, exam technique or something they need to be able to do for work)? Is it aligned with a coursebook or syllabus you are using? You don’t need to necessarily write why your aims are relevant in your plan – but it’s a good idea to know why you’re teaching them this thing.
By the end of the lesson… at the end of the activity… over the course of the term… when exactly do you want your students to have achieved this aim by? A helpful way to start yourself off on the right foot here is to begin your aims with ‘By the end of the lesson, students will be able to…’
I’d offer one tiny extra tip of my own: when writing lesson aims, I always used to put them off as long as possible. Therefore I’d write the whole plan… and then figure out the aims afterwards. Decide what to do, and then figure out why you’re doing it?! I hope the problem with that approach is fairly obvious. Even if you hate writing them, even if the difference between ‘good lesson aims’ and ‘bad lesson aims’ seems like navigating a minefield, figure out your aims first, then decide what activities will help your students to achieve them.