Replacing Learning Objectives with Learning Targets

Replacing Learning Objectives with Learning Targets

In the arts, a great work may begin without a clear end in mind—the splashes of color or the arcs of sound seemingly emerging from the artist or performer spontaneously. If it were only so with teaching students! While there may be artistic flair and creative gesture in conducting a school ensemble, our ultimate goal as teachers is to foster student learning. Therefore, we need to plan exactly what we intend students to learn.

Many of us learned how to plan lessons using “objectives.” Lately other terms have become synonymous, ranging from “learning intentions” to “SWBAT” to “agenda” to “target.” But all intend to name the same thing: what do we intend for students to learn by the end of the lesson. I prefer the term learning target because it so clearly tells me and students exactly what we seek to accomplish. Furthermore, as a learner I may fail to meet the objective but I can still “score” even if I only get close to the target’s bullseye.

A Learning Target Is…

A learning target is an intentional statement of what students will know and be able to do better by the end of the lesson. It provides a just right-sized chunk of standards-based content and skills within the zone of proximal development. Student-friendly, academic vocabulary is used. It includes how students will demonstrate success or provide evidence of their learning.

Standards-Based Targets

Whether it’s expected or demanded, aligning student learning with national or state standards assures that students have a consistent and sequential set of skills to master. Standards help us determine the critical content to teach, while keeping us from covering some content deeply yet missing content that links what students know to new skills.

As a new choir student in fifth grade, I could certainly harmonize (I’d been hearing it at church since before I was born), but I had no idea what a third was let alone a triad. Just because I could do it—with simple tunes—didn’t mean I had any clue when the director told the alto section to improvise harmonies on a more complex selection. Not only did I not gain the knowledge until much later, I felt “dumb” and incompetent for years. And I know that wasn’t my choir teacher’s intention!

Know and Do Better

Volumes of research have been done on the efficacy of learning targets, the academically correct methods of constructing learning targets, and the most effective way to communicate learning targets to students. It’s really short and simple: a learning target tells students what they will know and do better by the end of the lesson. As John Hattie writes, learning “pathways must be transparent for the student.”

A learning target makes it visible to students what they will learn and how they can be successful with that learning. Robert Marzano uses the term “success criteria” for the set of skills and content students need to master the learning target.

As a bonus, a learning target makes it visible to teachers what the lesson “needs.” Short direct-teach? Modeling? Peer practice and feedback? Independent practice? Collaborative grouping?


Learning targets need to be digestible. Suggesting that students will master all modes of the major scale in a single lesson leads to frustration—and a delay in the instructional calendar! Consider what is “just the right size” of learning based on the standards, existing student knowledge and skills, and the time available.

Zone of Proximal Development

Not only do learning targets need to be right-sized, they need to be complex enough to challenge students without reaching so far as to create unproductive frustration or mass confusion. As you plan a unit, consider first what students already know and can do, then write learning targets with more foundational skills at the beginning. Later in the unit, use learning targets that build on those in prior lessons. You want the learning for each lesson to be close but still a bit beyond what students are already able to do and know.

Evidence of Learning

We can create the bullseye for the intended learning but we also need to tell students how they will “score” success. Essentially, we need to include how students demonstrate what they’ve learned and how lesson activities relate to the learning target.

The Wording

Here’s where I’ve seen teachers get frustrated. In an effort to simplify the process, teachers are often shown very specific wording for writing learning targets, even when the wording seems contrived or confusing. Research suggests that the wording is less important than what the learning target contains. We’ve said it already. There are two components: what students will be learning AND how students and the teacher will know that learning has occurred. So long as these elements are present, we are maximizing the effect on learning!

That said, write them the way your campus or district suggests!

In terms of increasing effectiveness for your learning targets—in whatever form they take—use developmentally appropriate, student-friendly language, even as you embed curricular, academic vocabulary.

One Example

Let’s think through writing a learning target. Here’s a Texas state music standard for a second-year class in middle school:

The student describes and analyzes music and musical sound. The student explores fundamental skills appropriate for a developing young musician. The student is expected to:

(C)  demonstrate knowledge of musical elements of rhythm, including whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, paired and single eighth notes, sixteenth notes, syncopated patterns, corresponding rests, and meter, including 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/8, using standard terminology;

There’s a great Latin tune in our library that parents will love at the next concert, so we need to learn syncopated rhythms now. My students are already proficient with reading and playing eighth and sixteenth notes in 4/4 and ¾ time, making syncopated rhythms accessible but challenging for them. We’ll need more than one lesson for them to really get it, starting with some definition and examples before isolated but transferable practice with the rhythm structure.

Summarizing this thinking leads to my learning target:

We will define and demonstrate syncopated rhythms by listening to, reading, and tapping along with recorded examples. We’re successful when we can independently read and tap a single syncopated rhythm over a recorded, multi-instrument track.

Let’s check to make sure we’ve considered the necessary aspects:

  • What will students know and be able to do better at the end of the lesson? Define and demonstrate syncopated rhythms.
  • How will they show they’ve got it? Individual students will read and tap a syncopated rhythm over a recorded track of several instruments.  
  • Is it the right-size target? Yes, we can accomplish that in one class period. I can also see where to go next. (What about creating a melody to accompany a syncopated bass line? Or doing a gallery walk of scores to locate syncopated rhythms?)
  • Is it in the zone of proximal development? Students have the foundational skills and knowledge but don’t have this yet.

A Learning Target Is Not…

Learning targets don’t simply restate standards. Let’s face it! Sometimes we need to unpack the standards to really understand what they’re saying. And, in many cases, the standards require several smaller chunks of learning to reach proficiency, let alone mastery. Use the standards to guide your development of learning targets rather than co-opting the often unfriendly language of the standards.

A learning target isn’t a statement of the day’s task, like “prepare for the concert on Friday,” or “get uniforms fitted.” This approach may assist with compliance or help adults stay organized, but it doesn’t move student learning. If your lesson plans have more of a “to do list” approach, consider:

  • What specific knowledge or skills do students need to learn?
  • What will they need to show or do to be successful at this learning?

When our learning targets are intentional and clear to students, the learning is pitch perfect!

As an instructional coach and dean at James Madison High School in San Antonio, Heather Sargent works primarily with literacy teachers and students, supporting academic achievement.

For more than 25 years she has worked as a trainer of teachers, curriculum developer, and instructional support coach in both public schools and through community health education organizations.

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