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.