How to Focus Students on a Lesson’s Purpose


I’m a fan of Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. I attended their session “Responding When Students Don’t Get It” at ASCD’s 2011 Annual Conference, so naturally I was curious about their 2012 session titled “The Purposeful Classroom,”  based on the book of the same name. The session starts with a clip of a 2nd grade ELD (English Language Development) lesson, after which Frey commented that communicating the purpose of a lesson isn’t something that should only be done at the beginning of the period.

I’m guilty of this.

Over the years I’ve come around to posting learning goals on the board and starting a class by going over them. After that, students don’t usually hear about our learning goals again unless I’m lucky enough to have left myself enough time for closure. Frey offers the advice that you can remind students of the purpose at each transition before you give instructions. I’m going to start doing that.

One area where I’m fairly good at keeping students focused on the purpose of an activity is during labs. A trick I use to do this is called a “Hot Report” (a strategy I adapted from this research). At the start of a lab, I distribute a half sheet of paper to each group. After my students have had some time to figure out what they need to do, but not enough time to dig themselves into a huge hole, I ring a bell. The students stop what they’re doing and fill out the report. I modify it based on the lab, but it always includes these three prompts:

I quickly run through the papers to verify that students understand the purpose of what they’re doing and to make sure nobody is completely mired in the swamp of confusion.

Making sure that students understand the purpose of a lesson seems like a straightforward goal. Despite the best intentions of credentialing programs everywhere, it is not as easy as stapling a SWBAT statement (Students Will Be Able To) on the board and filling in a blank space. When do you tell your students the purpose of a lesson and when do you develop it together? When do objectives eliminate clutter and when do they create blind spots? Should objectives be wide or narrow, shallow or deep? These aren’t just questions about how to write a statement that looks nice on your whiteboard. As Fisher and Frey point out, everything in your class should align with your purpose.

How do you continually communicate the purpose of a lesson to your students?

Fisher & Frey session available as part of ASCD’s 2012 Virtual Conference—free to all who attended ASCD’s 2012 Annual Conference—and available for purchase for those who did not.


  1. I feel that to continuosly communicate the lesson to my class I need to be persistant in saying what it is. I would communicate the purpose of the lesson at the beginning of the class and before the class starts the lesson itself. Also, I might remind the class of the lesson at the end of the class before the class goes home. This may encourage the students to have the lesson on their minds whild doing their homework.

  2. I agree with making sure students know why they are doing the assigned activity. Most students see it as just mindless work unfortunately. The “Hot Report” I really enjoyed seeing. I have seen different versions, but I really liked the questions. It went right to the point for the students and gives you feedback quickly to see if the students get the material.

  3. Students should know the purpose of the lesson and be reminded of the purpose, so they can understand why they are doing the work. Most students just see it as mindless work that the teacher gives to be “mean.” I like the “Hot Report” tool. It gives the teacher feedback so they can see if the students got the point, but it holds the students accountable to know why they are doing the work. The questions are simple and right to the point and I really like it.

  4. I love the Hot Report idea. I do a lot of cooperative learning within my lessons and I think doing this periodically throughout those lessons would be beneficial. I always have my objective stated clearly at the beginning of a lesson, but I find quite frequently once students get in to an activitiy they forget why they are doing it and then find it difficult to make certain connections. Prompting them to make those connections all the way through a lesson is a fantastic way of keeping the lesson purposeful. I love it because it is simple and effective.


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