Volume VI, Issue I




Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.



Learning Targets

“Students should be able to answer three basic questions:
Where am I going? Where am I now? How can I close the gap? ”  

     J.Myron Atkin, Paul Black, and Janet Coffey


A previous issue of Making the Standards Come Alive! titled “Power Standards: Focusing on the Essential” detailed the rationale for prioritizing standards in order to ensure effective teaching and learning. In it, I wrote that determining power standards, rather than giving every standard and indicator an equal amount of attention in the curriculum and on assessments means teachers give priority to the most essential standards. These power standards allow teachers to focus their planning and instruction on what is most essential for their grade level or course. Teachers, in turn, are able to work more efficiently and ensure deeper learning for their students.

However, the prioritization of standards alone does not ensure clarity around what students are expected to understand and do. When there is a lack of clarity around instructional goals, students are less likely to be engaged and invested in their success. Standards are broad, complex, and multi-faceted with both explicit and implicit meaning. If clarity around the standards does not exist, teachers struggle to accurately teach, assess, and clearly communicate student progress relative to that standard.

In order to provide specific, transparent, lesson-size expectations for learning, teachers need to deconstruct standards into specific learning targets. It isn’t until robust standards are unpacked and made clear to students that we will be able to answer the question “What is each child guaranteed to learn throughout this grade level or course?”


Defining Learning Targets

“Students who can identify what they are learning significantly outscore those who cannot.”

– Robert Marzano

The metaphor that Connie Moss and Susan Brookhart use to describe learning targets in their Educational Leadership article, “What Students Need to Learn,” is that of a global positioning system (GPS). Much like a GPS communicates timely information about where you are, how far and how long until your destination, and what to do when you make a wrong turn, a learning target provides a precise description of the learning destination. They tell students what they will learn, how deeply they will learn it, and how they will demonstrate their learning.

Learning targets describe in student-friendly language the learning to occur in the day’s lesson. Learning targets are written from the students’ point of view and represent what both the teacher and the students are aiming for during the lesson. Learning targets also include a performance of understanding, or learning experience, that provides evidence to answer the question “What do students understand and what are they able to do?”

As Moss and Brookhart write, while a learning target is for a daily lesson, “Most complex understandings require teachers to scaffold student understanding across a series of interrelated lessons.” In other words, each learning target is a part of a longer, sequential plan that includes short and long-term goals.

Why Use Learning Targets?

According to experts, one of the most powerful formative strategies for improving student learning is clear learning targets for students. In Visible Learning, John Hattie emphasizes the importance of “clearly communicating the intentions of the lessons and the criteria for success. Teachers need to know the goals and success criteria of their lessons, know how well all students in their class are progressing, and know where to go next.”

Learning targets ensure that students:

  • know what they are supposed to learn during the lesson; without a clear learning target, students are left guessing what they are expected to learn and what their teacher will accept as evidence of success.
  • build skillfulness in their ability to assess themselves and be reflective.
  • are continually monitoring their progress toward the learning goal and making changes as necessary to achieve their goal.
  • are in control of their own learning, and not only know where they are going, they know exactly where they are relative to where they are going; they are able to choose strategies to help them do their best, and they know exactly what it takes to be successful.
  • know the essential information to be learned and how they will demonstrate that learning to achieve mastery.

Learning targets are also helpful for the adults working with the students. They make it easier to plan, monitor, and assess students’ learning and make instructional decisions that will help all students reach mastery. In fact, when teachers are clear on their learning targets and criteria for success, they become more focused and likely to eliminate the instruction that has no relevance.

Learning targets are a part of a cycle that includes student goal setting and teacher feedback. Formative assessment, assessment for learning, starts when the teacher communicates the learning target at the beginning of the lesson. Providing examples of what is expected along with the target written in student-friendly language gives students the opportunity to set goals, self-assess, and make improvements.

The Design and Communication of Learning Targets

“Students can hit any target that they know about and that stands still for them.”

-Rick Stiggins

When designing an effective learning target, teachers have to distill the essential knowledge, skills, and/or reasoning for the lesson. Teachers need to think about what students learned in the previous lesson, what students will need to learn in the current lesson, and where the students are headed in subsequent lessons. The learning target can be made visible and accessible to students through the use of student-friendly language and using the words “I can…” to begin each learning target statement. Following the steps below, teachers can maximize the impact of their instructional planning and delivery.


Determine what is essential for the lesson.
Teachers need to plan with the end in mind and have a clear understanding of what students should understand and be able to do at the end of a unit, or larger sequence of lessons. Once that is clear, teachers need to determine each lesson-sized chunk of learning that will make up the learning journey.

  • What will students need to learn and understand in this lesson?
  • What have they learned in previous lessons?
  • Where will they be headed after this lesson?

Define the level of rigor for the lesson.
An important part of designing a learning target is determining what levels of thinking will be required of students in order to deepen and extend the learning that occurred in the previous lesson. Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge provide clear guidance in this step. (See Resources and References section for sources.)

Plan a performance of understanding
A performance of understanding is what the teacher is asking the students to do, and needs to be identified to provide evidence of student learning. The performance of understanding not only helps the students develop and demonstrate understanding and skills, it also provides important formative assessment evidence to the teacher.

Write student learning targets
Student learning targets should be written using student-friendly language and written from a student’s point of view. In order to write these “I can…” statements, teachers need to ask themselves:

  • What concepts and skills do students need in order to be successful with this standard?
  • What reasoning skills will they need in order to be successful with this standard?
  • What is the intended learning for the lesson?
  • How should lessons be scaffolded?
  • How will students demonstrate their learning?
  • How will students record their thinking and learning about each target?
  • Is the learning target written in accessible, student-friendly language?

Identify criteria for success
By identifying the criteria for success, students know exactly where they are and where they need to go in order to be successful. When success criteria is used, students can answer questions like:

  • What does quality look like with this task?
  • Where am I relative to success with this learning target?
  • What are my next steps?
  • Do I understand what proficiency and mastery looks like?
  • How can I use the target(s) to self-assess, set goals, and monitor my progress?

Share the learning target
Sharing the learning target with your students does not mean to simply post it on the board. Teachers should check for students’ understanding of the learning target by having them verbalize the intended learning in their own words either individually, in partners, or in small groups. During the lesson, students come to understand the learning target when they have the chance to engage in a task that is aligned precisely with the intended learning for the lesson.

  • Are the learning targets made visible to students before, during, and after the lesson?
  • Is the necessary learning clear to students?
  • Have students had the opportunity to make meaning of the learning target?

Promote student reflection
Another value of a learning target is the student’s ability to self-assess, set goals, monitor progress, and initiate improvements. In order to help students do this, learning targets can be placed in a template where next to each target students can reflect how they are doing using words like “not yet,” “getting there,” or “got it.” To further apply their learning and reflect on their progress, students can complete additional assignments that include the same learning target and evidence of learning in order to extend what they have come to know and understand from the day’s lesson.

In their book Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today’s Lesson, Moss and Brookhart include a four-step framework for writing learning targets from the students’ point of view. You can access it online at https://bvqca.weebly.com/uploads/1/8/7/5/18754300/reading_excerpts__how_to_design_learning_targets_moss_brookhart.pdf.

When learning targets are clearly constructed from the student’s point of view, students are able to answer the following questions:

  • What will I be able to do at the end of this lesson?
  • What do I need to know to be able to do this?
  • How will I show my learning?
  • How well will I have to do it?


Learning Target Exemplars


  • I can use the word wall to help me spell new words in my writing.
  • I can construct an equation with a letter standing for the unknown quantity.
  • I can compare and contrast two characters and how they interact in the story.

Middle School

  • I can formulate an inference from an assigned text and use evidence from my reading to support my inference.
  • I can use comparisons, analogies, or anecdotes to highlight the significance of a piece of evidence in my argument.
  • I can use variables to represent two quantities in a real-world problem.

High School

  • I can explain the structure and function of a carbohydrate.
  • I can cite specific textual evidence to support the analysis of primary and secondary sources.
  • I can prove theorems about parallelograms.


Learning Targets Misconceptions

“Teachers who truly understand what they want their students to accomplish will almost surely be more instructionally successful than teachers whose understanding of hoped-for student accomplishments are murky.”

– W. James Popham

Misconception 1 – Learning targets describe the activity that students will complete.
Learning targets are framed as what the students will learn, not the activity in which they will engage. Learning targets are about the concepts students will understand and the skills they can apply as a result of a lesson.

  • Non-Example: I can work in a small group to read and discuss an article about Westward expansion.
  • Example: I can describe ways that human activities have altered places and regions.
  • Non-Example: I can complete a worksheet that includes strategies for subtraction.
  • Example: I can subtract numbers using an unmarked number line as a strategy.

Misconception 2 – Learning targets are the same as instructional objectives.
Instructional objectives guide instruction and are written for the teacher. The purpose of instructional objectives are to link outcomes across a unit, and they tend to be written in broader terms. In contrast, learning targets are shared by both the teacher and the student and guide the students’ learning. They are written in student-friendly language and each learning target is a lesson-sized amount of information, skills, and reasoning. Learning targets are made visible to the students and shared at the start of, during, and at the end of the lesson.

Misconception 3 – Learning targets are checklists.
Learning targets are not intended to be taught, checked off, and forgotten. Rather they are a way to make student learning clear, focused, and transferable. When well-crafted learning targets are used, they provide evidence of learning, and criteria for success.

Misconception 4 – Posting the learning target is enough.
In order for the learning target to promote reflection and guide the students’ learning, students must have the opportunity to make meaning of the target for today’s lesson. There are a variety of ways to engage students in making meaning of their learning targets as they work individually, in partners, or in small groups:

  • Reflect on their understanding using thumbs up, thumbs in the center, or thumbs down
  • Paraphrase the learning target
  • Rewrite the learning target in their own words
  • Reflect on where they are in their learning in writing either on a rubric or checklist (not yet, getting there, got it)
    Share how they will know if they have met the learning target
  • Write an entry where they explain where they are in their learning process answering the questions “Where am I going? Where am I now? How will I get there?”

In summary, learning targets shared between teachers and students have the potential to yield academic gains for all students. Without clearly defined learning targets, teachers are unable to provide effective feedback and design quality assessments that target the content and skills to be mastered in a grade level or course.




Resources and References


Atkin, Myron, Paul Black, and Janet Coffey. Classroom assessment and the national science standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2001.

Clayton, Heather. “Power Standards: Focusing on the Essential.” Making the Standards Come Alive! Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2016. Access at www.justaskpublications.com/just-ask-resource-center/e-newsletters/msca/power-standards/

Hattie, John. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Moss, Connie and Susan Brookhart. Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today’s Lesson. Alexandria: ASCD, 2012.

___________ . Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom. Alexandria: ASCD, 2009.

___________ . “What Students Need to Learn.” Educational Leadership, March 2011, pages 66-69.

Rutherford, Paula. Instruction for All Students. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2015, pp. 231-236.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Resources



Instruction for All Students

Please include the following citation on all copies:

Clayton, Heather. “Learning Targets.” Making the Standards Come Alive! Volume VI, Issue I 2017. Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). ©2017 by Just ASK. All rights reserved.