Let’s begin with a brief definition, and then go from there. A learning objective is a statement of what a student will know and be able to do after receiving instruction. It is generally not long term, but stated in terms of what will be accomplished at the end of each class meeting. An objective is not a statement of what activity will be done, but instead of what will be learned as a result of doing the activity. In music, an objective is not playing or singing a song, but instead what learning the student will demonstrate while playing or singing the song. This could include demonstrating an even tone throughout the range, accurate performance of dotted rhythms, or appropriate use of ornamentation in two pieces of contrasting historical periods.
Educators are fond of using the acronym SMART to describe good learning objectives. The acronym reminds us of five key components of a good learning objective: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. A specific objective states plainly what the result of instruction will be, and what the student, teacher, and anyone else who is watching will be able to observe as evidence that the desired result has (or has not) been achieved. A good objective allows the student to say after instruction, “I did it” or “I got it” with a full understanding of what “it” is. If we give an objective that is too general, the student is likely to be unclear about what is expected, and why he or she is doing the activity. For example, if the objective given is “play Scarborough Fair,” the student has no way of knowing why you want him or her to do so, or what kind of performance will be acceptable. On the other hand, one could write an objective using Scarborough Fair that might go something like this: The student will demonstrate proficiency in the use of pitch, particularly the #^6 in Dorian mode by accurately singing Scarborough Fair.” With this objective, the student knows that the entire song is expected to be done accurately, but that particular attention and practice should be directed toward singing the #^6 when it occurs in the song.
When an objective is specific, it will most likely also be measurable. Consider the two examples given above. With the first, “the student will be able to play Scarborough Fair,” any performance resembling the named song fulfills the objective. As stated, the student either plays the song, or doesn’t. There is no way of knowing how well it has been played, so the student has no way of knowing how he or she is doing. If this is given as the objective, then it is unfair to give a poor assessment for a poor performance, because even a poor performance meets the objective; that is, even if the student plays the song badly, he or she has still played it, and that is all that was stated in the objective. With the second objective, there is something to measure–pitch. The overall pitch accuracy can be measured using a rubric, and the accuracy of the #^6 can be measured, also with a rubric. Another approach could be to access how particular scale degrees are performed. In this case, a checklist might be used. All of the scale degrees could be listed, and for each one that is sung accurately, a check is placed next to the scale degree in the list. This kind of assessment gives the teacher and student specific feedback that can be used to improve overall pitch accuracy.
It is important for the student to believe that the objective put before him or her is realistic and achievable. Objectives can easily be too ambitious, especially if the teacher has confused goals, which are long-term and general, with objectives which, as we have already stated, are short-term and specific. A goal for a string player of accurately performing a solo part to a Vivaldi concerto grosso might be a worthwhile goal for a semester, but it would be discouraging and achievable for one or two class meetings When directors throw an audition piece in front of a student and tell them to learn it over a weekend for an all-state audition next week, they are presenting an underachieve objective than can only lead to discouragement, anger and a failed audition. The objective must be realistic and achievable considering the time to be given to the task, and to the abilities of the student.
Specific objectives are also more likely than not to be relevant, because specificity usually answers the question, “why am I doing this?” When the objective is clear, the student can be motivated by the reason. But specificity is not the only consideration in writing a relevant objective. Student interests also must be taken into account. If the student is not at all interested in the material, no amount of objectives is going to make that material relevant. This is a tricky area for many teachers who hold fast to the idea that teachers have the first and last word on what their students do in their classroom. While it is true that teachers are the managers of their students and their students’ learning, it is also true that students must be able to transfer and apply their learning. This means that what students learn in your classroom using your materials can be used outside your classroom with other materials that are completely of the students’ choosing. It also means that students can use what they learn from achieving one objective, in the accomplishing of other objectives; that is they can transfer their learning from familiar to unfamiliar material. The writers of the National Core Arts Standards have featured selecting in all of the artistic processes; students select music to be performed and to which they will respond.
Good learning objective are also time-bound. We have already seen that the time it will take a student to complete the objective figures into making the objective achievable. Beyond this point, objectives must have check points and end points so that students can know how they are doing and how they did. They also need end points so that the objectives can be finished, for without an end point, there is no closure, no opportunity to grow from feedback, and no sense of accomplishment. Along the way, there must be times when students get a sense of how things are going so that they can make needed corrections and revisions. Check points are less necessary when the objective is for a single class, but even there, work can and should be checked so that students who are “on the wrong track” can be redirected, which maintains the possibility of success by the end of the period. Students want to know when work is due, so they can plan and budget their time in consideration of work they have for other classes, and of other activities they are involved in outside of school.