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Your semester or year is under way. And now that you’ve gotten started, whether you are a beginning or experienced teacher, you’re faced with these questions:

  • What do I want the students to be able to do in each unit, and
  • What are students going to do to learn the objectives?

I present to you some suggestions for addressing these two crucial questions.

By now, you’ve decided what topics you are going to teach in your course, and you have an idea of the general amount of time that is available to teach these topics. As outlined in “Getting Started,” there is never as much time as it seems for students to learn what they need to.

How do you make the best use of the time that you have?

Both Lewis Carroll, the author and mathematician, and Robert F. Mager, the “father” of performance objectives, have said essentially the same thing:

“If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
Lewis Carroll (1)

“If you don't know where you are going, it is difficult to select a suitable means for getting there.”
Robert F. Mager (2)

In the classroom, this means that both the teacher and the student need to know where the instruction is taking them. Some people may like going to faculty meetings with no agenda, but most do not. Some students may like coming to a class without a plan, but most prefer that the teacher has a plan and communicates with them what it is.

Telling the students what they need to learn has gone by many names over the years, and the name is still morphing. Some names include:

Figure 1
  • Learning objectives
  • Performance objectives
  • "I can" statements
  • Instructional objectives
  • Enabling objectives
  • Aims
  • Terminal objectives
  • Competencies
  • Educational objectives
  • Assessment statements

Semantics aside, teachers can’t be successful if students don’t know where their learning path is going. It is essential for teachers to communicate to students the objectives, regardless of what they are labeled.

Learning objectives vs. learning activities vs. resources

Once you have determined both how much time is available and what the instructional objectives that the students need to learn are, the learning activities must appropriately match the objectives, and the teacher must find the resources to successfully meet the objectives.

Figure 2 shows a thought process that can help match individual objectives with a means to teach them:

  • The first two steps should already have been done when planning the course.
  • Knowing what resources are available is a key piece of information to know. Take inventory of what is available in the classroom, look in file cabinets and the storeroom, and ask colleagues about resources they have to share.

Figure 3 shows some traditional instructional methods, whereas Figure 4 shows some ideas for some more innovative methods of instruction:

Figure 3

  • Lectures
  • Experiments
  • Textbooks
  • Worksheets
  • Group work
  • Projects
  • Conferences
  • Videos
  • Computer simulations
  • Computer lessons

Figure 4

  • Podcasts
  • Khan Academy-type presentations
  • Student-made videos
  • Blogs
  • Project-based learning
  • STEM activities
  • Flipped classroom
  • Teacher-made video lessons
  • and much more

Once you take inventory of your available resources, you can determine some of the learning activities to use. And then the quest for more resources can begin!

Table 1 offers some suggestions for where to find additional resources:

AACT classroom resource page The classroom resources page for the American Association of Chemistry Teachers.
NSTA chemistry listserv A professional learning and networking community. A place to get answers and resources.
AP Chemistry teacher community A professional learning and networking community. A place to get answers and resources.
Gizmos Interactive science simulations and curriculum ideas.
The Concord Consortium (Free) Interactive science simulations and curriculum ideas.
Vernier Software & Technology Vernier Video Physics and Graphical Analysis, LabQuest 2 as stand-alone apps or with sensors.
PhET (Free) Interactive science simulations and curriculum ideas.
Explain Everything A tool for making screencasts. For students and teachers.
Educreations (Free) A tool for making screencasts. For students and teachers.
Sophia (Free) Offers students affordable ways to get to and through college, and gives teachers tools to transform the way they teach.
Inquiry Project (Free)
Seeing the world through a scientists eyes.
Individual teacher website http://www.chemguy.com/Chemguy/index.html
Individual teacher website http://hatakappodcast.blogspot.com
Individual teacher website http://kellymorganscience.com
Individual teacher website http://www.dativebond.com/Ris

As you choose to incorporate a resource into a lesson, keep in mind the following points:

  • If it’s a lab, be sure that it’s safe, and inform students of safety precautions.
  • The level of difficulty needs to be appropriate for the audience.
  • Does it actually work? There is no point in having students do an activity that is supposed to teach concept X when it doesn’t do so!
  • Choice is good! Provide options for students to learn an objective and let them decide what path to take. (See Figure 6 below for some examples of this.)

Matching objectives with resources

Below is an example from my unit on chemical reactions that shows how I allow my students choice when it comes to matching objectives with resources in practice.

Figure 5 shows the objectives for my unit on chemical reactions:

Figure 5

Figure 6 shows how these objectives are achieved with learning activities:

Figure 6

Figure 6 is an example of what could be called differentiating instruction. As noted by Carol Tomlinson, “Differentiated instruction provides access for all students to the general education curriculum. The method of assessment may look different for each child; however, the skill or concepts taught will be the same.” (3)

Without learning objectives, which provide the framework for selecting the learning activities, there is no structure or guarantee that students will learn the material. To paraphrase Dr. Mager: If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you’ve arrived?

The choice of learning activities and how they are implemented is up to each teacher. Some prefer to use project-based instruction, some may prefer to use the flipped classroom model, while others may need to emphasize English language learner strategies. The “how” is flexible; the “why,” based on the learning objectives, is the glue that holds everything together.

Why is the “objectives ⇄ learning activities resources” dynamic important?

The example in Figure 6 outlines ways to give students some choice of how they learn. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (4), uses a variety of data to show that the majority of people are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This includes students!

Giving students a list of what they are supposed to learn matched with choices of how they can go about learning opens the classroom to a new world of positive interactions with students. As noted in a recent NSTA chemistry listserv post, “My advice to teachers in general is to consider the 3R’s of Teaching and Learning—not Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic, but rather Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.”(5) Creating a teaching/learning environment where students have control over their learning in an atmosphere of relevance and positive relationships is a win-win for everyone.

There are many different teacher-planning tools available to organize instruction, for example the 5E model and Understanding by Design (UbD). These methods, however, are not intended for students. While it is a good idea to pass along a course’s scope and sequence to a future teacher, the information communicated in these ways is not centered on student outcome and thus does not directly equate to student learning.


Getting into action means taking what is known about how students learn best, combining it with what teachers know works with their students, and giving this information to the students.

Who is the audience for these objectives and assignments? The students, of course! They are the ones who need to be given the list of objectives and correlated activities, but unfortunately they are often the last ones to get the materials.

Good luck with your planning, and remember: “If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.” (1)


  1. http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/33008.html.
  2. Preparing instructional objectives. 1962 (1st ed.) and1984 (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA. http://www2.gsu.edu/~mstmbs/CrsTools/Magerobj.html.
  3. Tomlinson, Carol (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Differentiated Instructions provides access for all students to the general education curriculum. Classrooms (2 ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  4. “Drive: The Surprising Truth about what motivates us.” by Daniel Pink. Riverhead Books (2009)
  5. Wayne Fisher, NSTA general science listserv October 1, 2014.


  • Figure 1 is based on Writing Learning Objectives at http://www.oucom.ohiou.edu/FD/writingobjectives.pdf.
  • Figure 2 is based on a similar diagram that the author found in an unremembered science education book from the 1980s.
  • Figures 3 and 4 are by the author and Figures 5 and 6 are from a chemistry unit by the author.
  • Thanks to Dr. John Stiles for revisions and feedback during the writing of this article.