Learning Targets

A clear focus for a lesson with high expectations for student learning is a promising teaching strategy that both John Hattie and Robert Marzano agree has high impact on student learning. Stop, take a deep breath, and look at the learning target in your classroom right now. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I have a learning target? If the answer is “no” keep reading.
  2. Is my learning target a complete sentence? If the answer is “no” keep reading.
  3. Is my learning target what all my students shout be able to do by the end of today’s class? If the answer is “no” keep reading.
  4. Would my students know what this learning target means and be able to reflect on their progress toward this learning target? If the answer is “no” keep reading.

What is a learning target?

Do you have an instructional objective or a learning target? What is the difference? Both objectives and learning targets are goals for what the student should know and be able to do that are derived from our standards. Standards or evidence statements are broad statements describe how the students will demonstrate understanding. Both objectives and learning targets are more specific measurable student learning outcomes of what a student should know and be able to do. Both guide teaching and learning in the classroom. So what makes them different?


An instructional objective measure the student learning outcome for what a student should be able to do at the end of an instructional sequence, such as a unit. Objectives guide instruction and are written from the teachers point of view of what students need to know and be able to do.

Learning Targets

By contrast, learning targets measure the student learning outcome for what a student should be able to do at the end of today’s class. Learning targets are written to guide the learning and use language that students can understand and use to guide their own learning.

In a nutshell, instructional objectives are broad and measure what a student should be able to do at the end of an instructional sequence, and learning targets are specific and measure the learning within the class period. Objectives guide instructional moves while learning targets guide the learning moves.

Here are some tips for evaluating the clarity and rigor of your learning targets.

Tip #1: Make it a Complete Sentence

Let’s face it, teachers are busy. We are often rushed and sometimes that includes being rushed to write our learning targets. We have all written learning targets that are phrases such as “multiply fractions” or “physical and chemical changes” on the board and not complete sentences. We know what that means, but do the students? Writing a clear learning target is important and research supports that it does have high impact on learning especially when the students can use it to reflect on their own learning. Slow down and prioritize the time to write your learning target in a complete sentence that contains a learning action. Turn “multiply fractions” into “I can explain how to multiply two fractions and how it is different from addition.” Turn “physical and chemical changes” into “I can explain evidence for why a change is physical or chemical.”

Tip 2 Involve Students in Learning Targets

Students become more motivated when they understand the task, know it is within their reach, and can experience success within a short term. Read through your learning target and make sure it is in language your students understand. Ask the students to explain what it means or how it would look if they could demonstrate understanding. Students are motivated when they have a sense of purpose. In the book Leaders of Their Own Learning by Berger, Rugen and Woodfin the authors provide many examples of ways to involve students and use learning targets with students throughout lessons. Check out this video of how one teacher uses learning targets throughout the lesson. Have students reflect on the progress they have toward a learning target, or the strategy, attitude or effort they use to reach it. Assess each students progress toward the learning target today with a quick ticket out the door so you can plan your next instructional moves for tomorrow.

“Students who can identify what they are learning significantly outscore those who cannot.” – Robert J. Marzano

Tip 3 Small, Manageable Chunks

Our state standards are not written to be individual learning targets. One standard itself contains many different skills and learning outcomes. Learning targets break down abstract content standards into many smaller learning tasks. Consider the standard from math: Determine the unknown whole number in a multiplication or division equation relating three whole numbers. This one standard could be broken into many different learning targets in small chunks throughout many days of instruction. Learning targets along the way might include:

  • I can explain how repeated addition and multiplication are related.
  • I can explain how repeated subtraction and division are related.
  • I can show how to solve a problem with repeated addition.
  • I can show how to solve a problem with multiplication.
  • I can explain how multiplication and division are related.
  • I can prove my answer to a multiplication problem is correct by using division.
  • I can solve a division problem by using a related multiplication problem.
  • I can prove my answer to a division problem is correct by using multiplication
  • I can write multiplication and division number sentences relating 3 numbers.
  • I can determine the missing parts (quantities or symbols) in number sentences.
  • I can find the missing number in a multiplication or division problem relating 3 numbers.

There are likely a number of other learning targets that you could break down further into smaller learning chunks to meet the needs of your learners or limited class time.

Tip #4 Add Language to your Learning Target

Keep your English learners in mind and add language acquisition to your learning target. How will students read, write, listen, or speak about what they are learning. English language learners in the classroom are acquiring language skills at the same time as content skills. SIOP or Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol provides research supporting the importance of developing your objectives into language objectives to help your English Learners. What does this mean? It means being transparent right from the start of how student will demonstrate their mastery of the standard through language. You are clear about whether students will read or listen (receptive language skills) or speak or write (productive language skills). This sets your English Learners up for success when they know what the end goal is, and how they will be asked to demonstrate their knowledge through language. For example, a learning target of “I can understand the events that led to the Civil War.” can be changed to “I can write about the reasons different events led to the Civil War.” It makes it clear that by the end of the period they will need to write about these events, not just explain them. This changes how students may engage or record notes throughout the period with that end target in mind.

Published by Ruby Bode

Assistant superintendent of Estes Park School District.

One thought on “Learning Targets

  1. Right on target! Great work as always! It will help with work next week thank you and enjoy your trip! *Sheldon Rosenkrance* *Superintendent Estes Park School District R-3* 1605 Brodie Ave, Estes Park, Co 80517 P: 970-586-2361 ext. 3003 sheldon_rosenkrance@psrd3.k12.co.us

    “*Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” – Sitting Bull *



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