I’ve written often on this site and in my eBook about the importance of writing out learning objectives for your students. These learning objectives, or lesson objectives, set a goal for your students to reach during the course of the lesson. It allows you as a teacher to focus only on the teaching strategies and information that will help the students master the objective(s) for the lesson.
What makes a learning objective “passive”?
A “passive” lesson objective uses a verb that doesn’t describe what a student will actually be able to do or master during the course of a lesson. Instead of placing the focus on what the students will learn, it focuses on what you will teach. For this reason lesson objectives are started with the acronym SWBAT, which stands for “Students will be able to. . .” It is essential in today’s world to focus on student learning and to see yourself as a facilitator of learning, not the center of the classroom.
Three Examples of Passive Learning Objectives
This, unfortunately, is one of the most commonly used learning verbs. It is very easy to just describe what you will teach and expect a student to understand during the course of a lesson. However, how do you measure or assess understanding? Understanding something doesn’t actually suggest that a student to do anything to show that understanding. Many teachers will recognize this word from the popular instructional design program called “understanding by design.” In this program, teachers are asked to “teach for understanding” of big ideas and essential questions. Their definition of understanding is more descriptive than what I mean here. Understanding seems to be the broad goal in education and not the standard for learning objectives. If you are a UbD teacher, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on this word and be corrected if I’m wrong.
To reiterate, these verbs are passive because they focus on what the teacher does as a teacher not what the student does as a learner. Learning is what happens in a lesson, but how students exhibit learning is another matter. To assess learning, we need to focus on actions that show learning. The problem with “learn,” therefore, is that it describes what students will do on the way to achieving some goal. In the Learning PROCESS, therefore, “learn” in the context of a lesson objective seems to refer to “Receive” more than any other aspect of the learning process.
How many times have your students said to you, “but I know this stuff,” only to do poorly on a test afterward? For example, when you ask students to “know the difference between the Gospels of Mathew and John,” they might memorize the description of the difference you gave them (a lower level of learning) but they may not be able to “compare and contrast” or “differentiate” as an active way of expressing the differences that they have learned (Critical Thinking).
Alternative Active Learning Objectives
Here are some suggestions for verbs you might use instead of understand, know and learn:
- Describe who, what, where, when. . .
- Explain how or explain why. . .
- Summarize. . .
- Describe the key parts of. . .
- Describe the ways in which. . .
- Differentiate, Compare and Contrast (i.e. understand the difference)
(photo credit: Robert S. Donovan)