Get the Students to Discover the Learning Outcomes

As a very keen and determined PGCE student at Bangor University’s outstanding School of Education, I was introduced very quickly to the importance of making my students fully aware of the learning outcomes (sometimes referred to as ‘aims’ or ‘objectives’), every single lesson. On a very fresh summer morning at the beautiful science labs at Bangor’s ‘Normal Site’, I and the rest of the science students were given a deck of playing cards. We were then asked to shuffle them and play poker, but keep any diamonds that were dealt to us, indefinitely. When this was finished, we repeated the game, but this time we kept any multiples of three. Once this was over, we were each given a set of coins and asked to toss each one in turn. If we got a head, we could keep the coin; whereas a tails meant that we had to dispose of that coin and place it into a big tub in the middle of the room. After about 30 minutes of doing this, we started to look at each other with rather puzzled and bemused faces. Some of my friends started to utter “What’s the point in this?” and “Why the hell are we doing this?” At this stage, our instructor stopped the activities and asked us all a very simple question: “How was that?”

A fun activity, but why were we doing it?
A fun activity, but why were we doing it?

The replies came slowly at first, but as soon as a few people had mustered enough nerve to reply, more answers soon followed.”It was okay, but I wasn’t sure why we were playing those games”, “It was good at first, but I lost focus after a while” and “The whole lesson just seemed completely pointless”. After the exchange of a few giggles, we could all see that this was part of the instructor’s plan all along (he was always very shrewd in the way that he introduced us to key concepts). He then asked “What do you think the purpose of this lesson was?”. Again, the replies came in thick and fast “Something to do with data and numbers”, “Learning how to use games to entertain students” and, finally, one student hit the proverbial nail on the head – “To understand that if the students don’t know why they are doing something, then they’ll lose focus”. This final reply was correct, but incomplete. For this particular session, the instructor was trying to teach us two things. The first objective was to learn that it is easy to ‘cherry-pick’ data in scientific experiments (hence the collection of the ‘diamond cards’ and disposing of each coin that had yielded a tails). The second was the one that’s most important to me and you: that learning is only productive and effective if the students know what the mission/objective of each lesson is.

After learning this crucial lesson, I quickly put it into practice during my first year of teaching. I would always write the lesson objectives on the whiteboard (or project them on a screen), straight after I had given my starter activity. My lessons always started promptly, and my students always knew what my mission was. However, despite this, something was still missing. The problem was that almost every teacher in my school had been trained in a similar methodology, and were all doing the same thing. Each lesson to my students seemed like, in the words of one Year 9 boy, “different versions of a computer game with the same exact layout, just different colours and different bad guys to fight” (I thought that was quite a profound conclusion, actually. I gave that boy a house point for his linguistic creativity).

So what was missing? Why, despite following best practice, were some of my students still losing focus? Why was it that at the end of each lesson some students couldn’t even remember the objectives I’d shown them 45 minutes earlier? Well, the answer, as I discovered much later than I probably should have, was found in that unusual session back at Bangor University. The reason that I can remember that particular lesson so well is because it contained a sense of mystery, and because I and my peers had to figure out the lesson objectives for ourselves. But how did we figure out those objectives? Answer: The activities of the lesson aroused within us a sense of curiosity about its purpose.

We all remember things better if we’ve had to discover them by ourselves, as opposed to being ‘spoon-fed’ the information. More often than not, we are also more proud of those things that we’ve had to overcome, adapt to and solve by ourselves, than those things we’ve attained easily, and this principle feeds directly into this very effective methodology for beginning a lesson:

Begin each lesson by assigning work, analysing it and then getting the students to generate the learning outcomes for the lesson
Begin each lesson by assigning work, analysing it and then getting the students to generate the learning outcomes for the lesson

By using this methodology you will not only capture your students attention as soon as the lesson starts, but you will also be encouraging them to use ‘higher order thinking skills’, especially if the students do the following:

  • Build models or construct some kind of concept illustration
  • Solve an open-ended problem (e.g. “You have five minutes to build a useful object out of the drinking straws on your desk”)
  • Include emotion in their work (e.g. “Imagine you are Neil Armstrong on the day he landed on the moon. Write a quick diary entry for him on that day. How did he feel?”)
  • Solve a logic problem (e.g. breaking a code, or answering a series of questions in sequence which lead the students to a final conclusion)
  • Use their physiology in an unusual way (e.g. “You have five minutes to build a tower out of the objects on your desks. One person in your group needs to balance the objects on their head. Who will create the tallest, most balanced tower?”)
  • Have a choice over whether to tackle the problem using a left or right-brain approach (e.g. “Sarah needs to buy food and drink for a birthday party. In front of you is a price list for every item at Partylicious candy store. Sarah only has 45 pounds to spend, so help her out! Maybe you could write some selected shopping lists for her, or draw a collection of items that she could buy.”)

Conclusion: Start your lessons promptly by assigning a good-quality starter activity, analyzing it thereafter and then asking the students to consider what the objectives of the lesson might be. I assure you, by starting your lesson in this way your students will benefit far more than if your lesson has an unfocussed start, directed solely by the teacher.


High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK). Richard is the award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management: 45 Secrets That All High School Teachers Need to Know

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