Leaders of Their Own Learning: Chapter 1: Learning Targets

What are learning targets and how will they help my students be leaders of their own learning?

The process of learning shouldn’t be a mystery. Learning targets provide students with tangible goals that they can understand and work toward. Rather than the teacher taking on all of the responsibility for meeting a lesson’s objective, learning targets, written in student-friendly language and frequently reflected on, transfer ownership for meeting objectives from the teacher to the student.

The seemingly simple work of reframing objectives written for teachers to learning targets, written for—and owned by—students, turns assessment on its head. The student becomes the main actor in assessing and improving his or her learning. Elena, former Odyssey Student, on her first days in a new school

Learning Targets

  1. I can define learning targets.
  2. I can explain how to derive learning targets from standards.
  3. I can describe how to unpack a learning target with student

Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment. Copyright 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Review: What is a Learning Target?

Learning targets are concrete goals written in student-friendly language that clearly describe what students will learn and be able to do by the end of a class, unit, project, or even a course. They begin with an “I can” statement and are posted in the classroom. The term target is used intentionally, as it conveys to students that they are aiming for something specific. The EL Education Core Practices use the following criteria to determine if a learning target is strong. 

Learning targets are...

  • Derived from national or state standards embedded in school or district documents such as curriculum maps and adopted program materials.
  • Written in student-friendly language and begin with the stem “I can...”
  • Measurable and use concrete, assessable verbs (e.g., identify, compare, analyze). The verb suggests the way in which the target will be assessed.
  • Specific, often referring to the particular context of a lesson, project, or case study.
  • Focused on the intended learning, not the intended doing. That is, they are phrased as statements about the skills or knowledge students will develop as opposed to what students will complete (e.g., “I can describe the ideal habitat for a polar bear” vs. “I can write a paragraph about the habitat of a polar bear”).
  • Matched to the cognitive process demanded of students (e.g., knowledge, reasoning, skill)

Examine Table 1.1 below, which comes from Chapter 1 of Leaders of Their Own Learning, and consider the following questions:

  • Based on the previous criteria, what are the strengths of the learning targets in Table 1.1?
  • If a learning target in the table was “I can make a poster about non living things” or “I can complete a graphic organizer on Sacco and Vanzetti” would it meet the criteria?
  • Try it: Write a strong learning target that describes the intended learning for your students in an upcoming class.

Table 1.1 from page 27 of Leaders of Their Own Learning

Review: How are Learning Targets Derived?

The criteria listed above notes that learning targets are derived from standards. But what does that actually mean? (Note: It is important to state at the start that creating learning targets is not simple work. We recommend that you read all of Chapter 1 of Leaders of Their Own Learning and, most of all, that you are patient with the process and find a way to get feedback on your learning targets from your colleagues.)  

In Leaders of Their Own Learning we promote the practice of nesting supporting or daily learning targets within long-term learning targets. Long-term learning targets are derived from standards (e.g., Common Core, state, local, district standards), which can be bundled together to focus instruction and assessment. Turning bundled standards into long-term learning targets makes the language of the standards plain to students and helps them understand where they are headed with their learning over a period of days or week.

Supporting targets, which are often broken down further into daily learning targets, are derived from long-term targets and become the anchor for daily instruction. Supporting targets “nest” within long term targets and are created by breaking the long term targets into manageable chunks that will guide your students’ learning on a day-to-day basis.  

Examine the two figures below from Chapter 1 of Leaders of Their Own Learning and consider the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the relationship between the standards and the long term target in Figure 1.1?
  • What do you notice about the relationship between the long term target and the supporting targets in Figure 1.2?
  • Name one additional supporting target that could be nested underneath the long term target in Figure 1.2.
  • If a colleague offered “I can fill in my note-catcher while watching a documentary on the Platte River” as an additional target for Figure 1.2, how might you help him or her revise this target using the criteria named previously to make it stronger?

Figure 1.1 from page 34 of Leaders of Their Own Learning

Figure 1.2 from page 36 of Leaders of Their Own Learning

Read and Watch: Unpacking Learning Targets

Targets could be very well written, derived from standards and posted in the classroom, but if students are not aware of what their learning targets are in a lesson and do not actively use them, they will hold no more power than a traditional “teacher’s” objective. In order for students to become leaders of their own learning, they must be aware of what the target is and understand and be able to articulate where their performance is in relation to mastering the target. Reaching, or not quite reaching, a learning target represents critical information for students about what they know and can do, and what they still need to learn.

It is essential for teachers to spend time in a lesson unpacking and tracking the learning target(s) with students so that they are clear about the purpose of the day’s work. To unpack a target:

  • Review domain-specific and academic vocabulary in the learning target
  • Ask students to focus on the verb in the target (e.g., describe, sort, analyze) and ensure they know what it means to do that cognitive work
  • Explain to students how they will show that they have mastered the target, whether through class work or an assessment for learning at the end of the lesson.

After unpacking the target, students should have a clear picture of what meeting the target looks like and sounds like, and they should have clarity on how their work time will lead them towards meeting the target.  

Watch the following two videos Students Unpack a Learning Target and Students Unpack a Learning Target and Discuss Academic Vocabulary and consider the following questions:

  • How does the teacher ENGAGE students with the learning target?
  • How does unpacking the target help the teacher assess students’ readiness to learn?
  • How does unpacking the target help students get ready to learn?

Students Unpack a Learning Target

Students Unpack a Learning Target and Discuss Academic Vocabulary

Dig Deeper

The Who, What, and Why of Learning TargetsReview The Who, What, and Why of Learning Targets from Chapter 1 of Leaders of Their Own Learning for a summary of the critical instructional moves for engaging students with learning targets. The table describes what teachers do, what students do, and the results.

Keeping students on target throughout a lesson:  Watch this video to learn how learning targets can help learners of any age stay on target and on track.

Students Discuss the Power of Learning Targets:  How do students feel about learning targets? Watch this video to hear students explain how learning targets help them achieve.

Core Practices:   EL Education Core Practice #26: Fostering Character: We encourage teachers to also use learning targets to foster students’ character growth. Read Core Practice #26  and the character targets in table 1.2 on p. 37 of Leaders of Their Own Learning. How you might incorporate character learning targets into your practice.

Synthesize/Take Action 

For Teachers…

  1. Review your lesson plans for the upcoming week. How can you include strong, clear, targets in student-friendly language that describe the intended student learning?
  2. Do you regularly ensure that your students are clear on what they need to know or be able to do by the end of a lesson? If not, role play with a colleague how to unpack a target with students, then try it in a real lesson!  
  3. Review your lessons plans for target-assessment match. Do your assessments—formative and summative—give students ample opportunity to demonstrate their progress toward meeting learning targets?

For School Leaders…

  1. How can you structure teacher planning and professional development so that teachers have time to collaboratively unpack their standards and discuss what targets will help students demonstrate proficiency on those targets?
  2. When visiting classrooms, do you check in with students to determine if they are clear about what they are doing and why?
  3. How can you facilitate conversation between teachers to develop common expectations for where targets will be posted in the classroom (or on student materials) and how they will be unpacked with students?