Each All Things Assessment blog post author has been personally invited to contribute by the All Things Assessment architects. All contributing experts have firsthand experience successfully implementing assessment practices.

How Learning Targets Empower Students (and Help Me, Too)

This guest post is written by Shannon Finnegan, a social studies teacher at Hopkins High School in Minnesota.

Throughout my teaching career, I have taught in three vastly different schools: a suburban high school, an inner city 6–12 school, and an alternative high school. In these different settings, I have found that there are certain educational buzzwords and catchphrases that will provoke groans and eye rolls on teacher professional development days regardless of where you work. Words such as differentiation, backwards planning, and standards-based grading are just a few of the phrases that will make teachers cringe on inservice days. When I began teaching at a small school in Brooklyn, New York, I came to loathe one phrase in particular: learning targets.

The principal had a detailed checklist of specific things he would look for whenever he visited a classroom. On any given day, we were expected to have a thorough and typed lesson plan to hand him upon his arrival, no fewer than 30 (current) pieces of student work hung up on our bulletin boards alongside a detailed explanation of the task, the state standards, a rubric, teacher feedback, and student scores, as well as clearly posted descriptions of the current unit, state standards, and you guessed it—daily learning targets.

I remember feeling overwhelmed by what I viewed as superficial and meritless tasks. Instead of creating meaningful materials for a lesson or grading papers, I was wasting time hanging new items up on my bulletin board every week or typing out long and detailed lesson plans. I felt frustrated that the feedback I received was often on surface-level “evidence” of teaching and learning—what was posted on the bulletin board or written on a piece of paper—rather than on the actual teaching and learning happening in my room. Moreover, I taught multiple classes a day and had all of three minutes for passing time, so finding space and time to write out “students will be able to explain the causes and effects of the French Revolution by reading in small groups and collaborating on document based questions” on the whiteboard in between classes just in case my principal decided to stop by was a daily annoyance.

In my second year at that school, however, my feelings around learning targets drastically shifted thanks to my work with an instructional coach, Allison. Allison was a joy to work with—she was insightful, kind, and loving, but also had a direct, no-nonsense style of communication that I so appreciated as a busy teacher with limited time to spare. She had a dramatic impact on my teaching practices and my efficacy in the classroom, and I owe my students’ success rates on the NY Regents exams to her weekly visits with me and my co-teacher. Allison is the one who first helped me realize that using learning targets could make the overwhelming and often stressful task of lesson planning more manageable (and more enjoyable).

Shifting How I Viewed Learning Targets

In a high-stakes testing environment, every moment of every lesson was precious. I remember looking over calendars with my co-teacher and Allison and panicking at the thought that we had to cover World War II in three days. How on earth could we effectively (and authentically) teach World War II in three days? Her answer? Use learning targets to identify the most important things we wanted our students to know and be able to do each day. After this, my co-teacher and I became very effective at unit and lesson planning. We always started with learning targets in mind—what do we want our students to know and be able to do at the end of each day? Then we’d move into—ok, how do we get them there? It was a simple shift in how we planned, but it made a huge difference in our ability to plan effectively given our high stakes and severe time constraints.

When I moved back to Minnesota and began teaching at my current school, they were in the middle of a big professional development push on the use of learning targets in the classroom. Instead of groaning or rolling my eyes, I was excited. I did not need to be sold on how learning targets could be an effective and powerful planning tool for teachers. Instead, I began asking myself—how can learning targets become effective and powerful tools for students? As I sat through the first professional development session on learning targets, ideas filled my head with how I could have my students interact more with the learning targets.

The result was the following:

Learning Target #4: I can analyze how Europe changed as a result of the Renaissance and Reformation.
Student Evidence Feedback Revised Responses
 

 

 

 

 

 

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At the start of each unit, I have always given students a self-check for understanding that contains the name of the unit, essential questions, state standards, and a list of concepts, people, events, and terms we will learn about with a space for students to summarize their learning on each concept.

This year, after the first professional development session at my current school, I decided to replace the list of topics with the 3–5 learning targets we will cover each unit. At the beginning of each class period, we review the learning target we are working on so students always know what our goal is for the day.

When we finish a learning target, students are given time to tell me everything they learned from the lessons that were connected to that learning target. Students fill the left hand column with their evidence of what they learned. I collect their self checks as a formative assessment and provide feedback in the middle column. (Tell me more about … What about …? Yes! True, but why? … What changed as a result?) Students then respond to my feedback the next day by reviewing their lesson materials and revising or expanding on their responses. In the event that I have students who did not achieve the learning target, I take that time to reteach.

After a recent discussion I had with a colleague on the value of learning targets, I decided to seek input from my students. While I expected more of a range of responses, I found that on the whole, my students felt the learning targets (and the self checks they are a part of) help them to feel prepared and successful in my class.

“I feel very prepared in this class. Whenever you teach, it’s easier for me. I like how you give us learning targets and self checks. I think they help me a lot. IDK why, but I do them and I try on them.” —Savannah

“The self checks are really helpful, not only on assessments, but just as an overall recap on what we learned throughout the unit. The learning targets make sense, and I like them because it gives you an idea on the main topic of the day.”—Jazmine

“I believe that the self checks are great because through that, you get to see what we understand and what we don’t.”—Christian

“Self checks can be helpful for learning, but sometimes answering the question over and over gets draining.”—Mason

Some students, like Mason, don’t love that I make them revise their responses. However, many students have taken to making it their goal to put so much evidence in the first column, that I can’t possibly ask them to go deeper or to write more. They often surprise me with how much they write, and how insightful and analytical their writing can be.

While I know there will always be educational buzzwords we cringe at and professional development topics we loathe, the use of learning targets is no longer something I see as a burden or a waste of time. They are powerful tools for effective planning, and they empower students to keep track of their own learning and to feel prepared and successful in the classroom. Rather than being surface-level “evidence” of teaching and learning in my classroom, they have become the cornerstones of teaching and learning in my classroom.

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