No matter what we do, having a target in mind is essential. If we don’t know what we are trying to accomplish, nothing but sheer luck can bring our endeavor to a successful conclusion. In fact, without a target, we can’t even know what success is or how to recognize we have succeeded. This goes for both teachers and students. Both need to know what the target is, what progress has been made, and when success has been reached. Knowing how to write a good learning objective is key to having and communicating useful targets. A good learning objective has four traits. It is specific, measurable, clear, and related to a body of knowledge, skills and meaningful learning. Let’s take these traits one at a time to fully understand them.
First, a good learning objective is specific. Learning objectives are different from goals, which should give a general overview of what the student will learn and be able to do at the conclusion of instruction. Learning objectives are specific in that they hone in on a single thing that a student will be able to do. Making the objective specific allows the student to know exactly what is expected and why that expectation is being made. For example a good objective might go like this: “students will be able to identify the key of each work they are playing in band, and be able to play the ascending and descending scale of that key accurately in sixteenth notes at 60 bpm.” An example of a bad objective for the same expectation might be something like this: “Students will understand scales of pieces they play in band.” Whereas the first objective states precisely what the student will do to demonstrate understanding, the second objective doesn’t even give a clue what the student is expected to do. It does not indicate what is meant by “understand scales,” nor does it make clear what connection between scales and musical works the student is expected to make. Without specifying these things, the student is unlikely to know what he or she is supposed to do, and stands little chance of succeeding at whatever the teacher had in mind. There should be no mystery about the teacher’s intent. Both teacher and student must know exactly what the student is to do and learn.
Secondly, the objective must be measurable. It is a fairly simple matter to take the good objective and derive an assessment from it. The student indicates what key a piece is in, which is a knowledge question that can be answered aurally or in writing, and then the student plays the scale. The good objective includes only verbs that can be measured, identify and play, and that can easily be linked to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. It also includes a description of what will be identified and what will we played. A rubric constructed for the purpose can be used to rate the tempo (60 b.p.m.), the rhythm used (sixteenth notes) and the accuracy of the pitches. By contrast, it is impossible to form an assessment from the bad objective, because there is no way of knowing exactly what the student is supposed to to do or what the student is supposed to learn from doing it.
Learning objectives are written for the teacher, student, observing administrator, and parents. These are all interested parties in the education of children. In the case of music, it is not uncommon for observing administrators to lack content knowledge, so objectives must be written plainly so they can be understood by the non-music specialist. Parents must also be able to understand learning objectives. They have an interest in understanding what is expected of their child in music class, and well written and widely understood objectives adds credibility to music as an academic and core subject. Taken together, learning objectives should present a very clear picture of purpose, and outline a set of actions that students can readily complete.
Finally, learning objectives must be related. They must clearly align with knowledge, skills and meaningful learning. A purposeful and logical order to the objectives must be apparent, with one objective building on another, addressing a single topic from multiple perspectives, or covering several elements or concepts that are part of an essential understanding. Taken together, good learning objectives will reveal a continuity of instruction, whereas bad learning objectives will appear to be random, haphazard, and poorly organized. Good objectives will lead learners through learning sequences and units of study, leaving them with the assurance that they are growing and making gains in their studies.