Nicole M. Dimich works with elementary and secondary educators in presentations, trainings, and consultations that address today’s most critical issues all in the spirit of facilitating improved support of student learning.

Guiding Student Investment through Making Learning Clear

The idea of students investing in their learning is a sought after prospective for many educators. How do teachers set up the conditions for students to want to learn? How do we inspire students to take their next steps and learn more? How does this investment lead to high levels of achievement for all students? The answers may be simpler (not to be confused with easier) than we think.

Willis and Adie (2016) clearly describe the essential nature of education in a democratic society where “teachers enable all students to access valued learning and to gain increasing power to make decisions about their learning while they are learning” (p. 1). In other words, when teachers are clearer about learning and make the path obvious to students, learners are positioned to be able to be decision-makers; to be empowered to take the next steps in their learning; to revise their work, and to apply their learning to new contexts. What does this pathway do? Consider if I invited you to my neck of the woods. I would most likely send you a numbered set of directions from Google maps. Let’s say you get to step 5 and you are lost or confused. You call me and instead of giving you step 6, I give you step 9. What happens? Some of you perhaps are angry and decide to turn around and go home. Others may enjoy the ride and do anything I ask. Still others may decide to take matters into your own hands and get there with or without my help. This is often what happens for some of our students when the learning path is not clear. Some get angry and quit. Others are going to get there with or without our help. Still others may be fine living in confusion and perhaps just doing whatever the teacher asks. Clear learning paths that teachers and students understand are key to high achievement (Hattie, 2009, Willis & Adie, 2016, Shepard, Heritage).

There have been many attempts to structure conversations and protocols to get clear about learning with varying levels of success. Sometimes the words “unpacking the standards” causes a collective groan among educators. This process has good intentions but too often was just an exercise in re-writing standards or pulling apart all the pieces of the standard. The goal was for teachers to get clear about the learning intended for students to achieve. If it worked for you, that’s fantastic, but in many cases it fell short for three reasons:

  1. We unpacked standards, created learning targets, and did not connect it to, or determine quickly enough, the evidence or student work that reflected mastery. Unfortunately, we stopped short of identifying the evidence that would reflect those standards and that learning. So, when we unpack the standards, we must make the move to talking about what student work looks like when it reflects mastery. The intent of unpacking standards was so that teachers could be clear about what it looks like, and the assessment piece adds the needed dimension to make this move beyond just recreating curriculum documents or restating a set of standards.
  2. Once we unpacked standards into learning targets, we often left it as a list of learning targets. While they were considered the stepping stones to achieving the standard, it easily ended up (at times) as a segmented and disjointed set of learning objectives. So, once those learning targets are teased out – those that reflect the standards, those that are perquisite to the standards, and those that help extend learning – they must be placed in cognitive order so we see the parts in relationship to the whole. In the absence of placing them in cognitive order, we can lose the essence of the standard. Considering these learning targets as a progression allows students (and teachers) to see the road map to achievement.
  3. We created “I can…” statements, a phrase coined by Jan Chappuis and Rick Stiggins (2004). This was an important move that emphasized the students as an essential user of the assessment information and a critical decision maker to increase learning. I often ask audiences, “What is the most important word in the learning target?” In many cases people respond, “I can…” Actually, the most important word is the verb that follows the “I can.” It is that verb – identify, explain, analyze, compute, solve, perform, critique – that helps us determine the types of meaningful tasks and items that will help us understand where students are. Once the “I can…” is clear and connected to assessment, students can track their learning, reflect on their level of understanding, and even generate their own evidence to show mastery of these learning targets. Once these learning targets are teased out and we have a clear picture of what they are, we can share them with students in meaningful ways.

How do teachers set up the conditions for students to want to learn? And, how do we inspire students to take their next steps and learn more? It begins with what Willis & Adie (2016) describe as the critical dialogue that teachers must have to deeply understand the standards in ways that help them be more instructionally agile in helping students gain access to this learning and achieve at high levels:

  1. Annotate the standards (walk through the standards, make connections, write notes, paraphrase, develop learning progressions)
  2. Plan evidence (determine the assessment evidence and what mastery will look like)
  3. Look at student work in order to get to the depth of meaning of those standards (analyze student work and ask students to do the same)

Once this occurs, teachers can better connect students to their learning so that they learn deeply and make powerful decisions to achieve more. Learning goals, when created in a progression, and with a sense of the parts and the whole, can be

  • posted in the classroom
  • reflected on by students before, during, and after instructional activities to clearly make learning center to the classroom
  • tracked by students as they make progress
  • used by students to generate evidence more independently and to demonstrate progress

In addition, Willis and Adie (2016), along with O’Neill (2002), describe this type of collaboration as the professional work of teaching and learning that builds public trust. As teachers are involved in active inquiry by interpreting the standards, planning student work, and involving students in reflecting and tracking these learning targets, there is a focused and meaningful sense of how to achieve at high levels. This type of inquiry is the professional dialogue that creates a sense of confidence in students, teachers, and the public.



Stiggins, R. J., Arter, J. A., Chappuis, J., & Chappuis, S. (2004). Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right, using it well. Portland, OR: Assessment Training Institute.

Willis, J. & Adie, L. 2016. Developing teacher formative assessment practices through professional dialogue: Case studies of practice from Queensland, Australia. Presentation at the International Invited Symposium, Division H. 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, D.C.

O’Neill, O. (2002). A question of trust. The BBC Reith Lectures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Linda bentson

    I’m impressed with what you are doing, Nicole. I see how this kind of teaching could have made a difference for me and for our kids. I’ve heard compliments about your work from other teachers!

    • Nicole Dimich Vagle

      Thank you so much!

  2. Laurie Sammons

    Right on, Nicole! You hit the bulls-eye once again!

    • Nicole Dimich Vagle

      Thank you so much, friend and colleague! I look forward to another moment to connect and learn!


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