The pros and cons of learning objectives in a CLIL lesson

June 29, 2021


When I decided to write a post on learning objectives and asked for some experiences on this topic, I did not expect the amount of responses I received. Clearly this topic triggers something for many teachers. In this post I want to compare the pros and cons of learning objectives in a CLIL lesson.

Estimated time to read this article: 10 minutes

What are learning objectives?

Just like with CLIL, there does not seem to be a definition on what 'learning objectives' are.

Which is odd, because we are all talking about it as if we are sure we are talking about the same thing, right?

To make sure we are on the same page, let's quickly see what other people have said about learning objectives.

The very first mention of 'learning objectives' were made by Ralph Tyler (1949).

He defined them as a combination of the type of knowledge and the behaviour to show that the learning is proficient.

In 1962, Mager talked only about the behaviour a learner should show and, more recently, John Hattie talks about learning objectives as the answer to the question: What should be learned?

A possible conclusion as to what learning objectives are might then be: What is a student going to learn?

An important distinction to make here is the focus on the 'what'. Not the 'how.

Telling students what activities they are going to do or what pages they are going to read can certainly be helpful

But are not learning objectives.

For the record: learning objectives do not have to cover one lesson only. They can be about lessons, modules, lesson series or even trimesters.

Course objectives and student objectives

An important distinction to mention is that books or courses often offer learning objectives as well.

But these are not always in 'students’ language' and are more focused on what the teacher is going to discuss.

For that reason, I would argue that learning objectives should be formulated by teachers and not course designers.

Or maybe even better, by students themselves. But more on that later.

Success criteria and learning objectives

When talking about learning objectives, a topic closely related to this is use of success criteria.

Hattie talks about them as well in the video below (also mentioned in the article on rubrics)

Success criteria are like mini-goals to achieve learning objectives.

This is why a learning objective like "Students know Pythagoras' Theorem" is a bit unclear.

Exactly what do you want students to do?

Do they need to ...

  • be able to calculate the hypothenuse?
  • learn the formula by hard?
  • be able to implement the reverse theorem?
  • etc.

I think you get my point.

Success criteria can be used in a couple of different ways:

  • Check if students are on track
  • Celebrate when achieved
  • Structure the process to go through

This last point is also immediately a potential challenge.

Scaffolding is essential in any CLIL lesson and using success criteria can be a way to scaffold learning.

But scaffolding is all about providing structure when needed.

In other words: if you decide to use a lot of success criteria, students who might less structure can get less engaged with your lesson.

After all, for them the challenge in their learning might not just be 'what' they need to learn, but also 'how'. And if you spoon0feed everything for them, they will feel less challenged.

Learning objectives in a CLIL lesson

Okay, so what does this have to do with CLIL?

One thing to be (maybe be extra) aware of in a CLIL lesson is the target language.

Because after all, CLIL is often used in a second language setting.

For that reason, one might argue you need to set language objectives.

I want to be honest with you: I don't think you need to explicitly mention language objectives.

As a (hard) CLIL teacher, your focus is on the subject.

As such, the learning objectives should be focused on the subject.


You can still integrate language in your objectives. It is CLIL after all.

For example, by stating a learning objective like: "You can explain what photosynthesis is in your own words" you focus both on the new topic to be discussed as well as the language needed to show this.

Things to keep in mind when formulating learning objectives

Combining the definition on learning objectives based on behaviour as well as effective success criteria, I would argue that effective learning objectives are not that hard to setup.

If done correctly.

In other words: measurable goals that trigger language output.

It is a CLIL lesson after all, right?

For example: "You know the step-by-step plan to solve a linear equation and can solve 3x-2=5x-6" is a good learning objective in my opinion.

Because I can ask students at the end of the lesson to write down the step-by-step plan and solve the equation.

I could even ask them to explain in their own words why certain steps go first.

Key Take Away

Learning objectives are effective when the results are measurable.

The pros: why you should use learning objectives

Now that we know what learning objectives are, let's talk about why you should use them.

Typically, this is something that can be approached from a scientific as well as a practical perspective. Like many things by the way.

And personally, I prefer the practical one.

That is why I asked this question in the Facebook group the CLIL Community and to the people who receive my weekly CLIL inspiration.

And I receive a lot of response!

Below you can find these arguments in a list of pros and cons of learning objectives.

1. Structures the learning process

To help guide students in the right direction and also provide some structure to the teachers' planning, learning objectives can help to provide structure.

It is important to mention that a combination of clear success criteria and clear expectations are important.

After all, if students don't get the learning objectives or don't know how they apply to them, they are not very useful.

This statement was made in the Facebook group:

I think this is a great metaphor, because you do not want to be in a bus without direction.

This metaphor was later updated, but more on that in a minute.

2. Improves self-reflection

Having clear objectives allows students to think about whether or not they have achieved these objectives at the end of the lesson.

This particular skill of reflecting upon their own learning is not just a very important skill to learn in general, but also works as a motivation to keep going.

In my experience students like it when they realise they make progress and are more motivated to learn if this is something they are aware of.

3. Allows for more effective feedback

Providing effective feedback is not CLIL specific. One could argue this is something important for every learner.

However, for a CLIL teacher, this is slightly trickier. Simply because feedback should be provided on both content and language.

With clear learning objectives it is easier to provide feedback because you can relate to the objectives and state how one might improve.

4. Inspection asks for them

Not the most motivating argument, but one I have heard a couple of times.

I have even observed lessons were teachers had the objectives on each and every PowerPoint slide because 'the inspection wants that'.

Now, I do not know the rules and regulations for each and every national education inspection.

But I do feel forcing people to do things like this feels counterproductive.

Instead of having an interesting discussion on the 'why' and thinking about its best applications, the discussion turns into a 'how to best do what the inspection wants'.

Not the most ideal situation in my opinion...

Key Take Away

Learning objectives can help to structure the learning process of students and improve self reflection and the application of feedback.

The cons: why you should not use learning objectives

Okay, so far, I have shared opinions and ideas as to why you should use learning objectives.

But to be honest: I also know people who do not use them.

And that is not because they are too lazy to do it.

They genuinely feel learning objectives are not helping their students improve.

1. Limits the freedom of teachers in a lesson

One of the arguments I have heard and read a lot in relation to this topic is the fact that some teachers are reluctant to use learning objectives, because they solidify what needs to be done that lesson.

In other words: it takes away the freedom of teachers to improvise and change the pace of the learning on the spot.

2. Does not allow for differentiation

Another common argument against using learning objectives, is the fact that fixed learning objectives limit the amount of differentiation possibilities.

If all students have to learn the same thing, how can you possibly differentiate between the ones who struggle and the ones who find it easy?

And although I do think this is something that can be dealt with, I understand this sentiment.

Differentiation in a CLIL lesson can be challenging and having a fixed lesson objective might actually be counterproductive.

3. Takes away surprises

Last but most certainly not least: if the teacher shows the learning objectives right at the beginning of the lesson, there is no 'aha' experience from students that lesson.

They already know exactly what to expect, which leaves little from for exploration and creativity.

Learning is more effective if students explore a topic and figure things out on their own, so making clear right from the start might make this experience less worthwhile.

This was also mentioned in the Facebook group post, using the bus metaphor previously mentioned.

I like this idea of the driver (= the teacher) being aware of the end goal and maybe making students aware of that as well, but deviated from the easy path every now and then to challenge and surprise students.

Key Take Away

Learning objectives might limit the freedom of teachers when it comes to differentiation and removes surprises from the lesson.


I tried to write this article in a way that both the pros and cons of using learning objectives were mentioned and described in detail.

But I also have to be honest: I do feel pros outweigh the cons of using learning objectives.

Or, maybe better: I think there are ways to use learning objectives that deal with the negative things related to learning objectives in this post.

And I genuinely think it is really motivating for students to see something on screen they do not understand yet or cannot do...only to realise at the end of the lesson they now understand.

What do you think? How do you use learning objectives? What do you think of these pros and cons of learning objectives?

Curious to hear your thoughts on this!


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