Learning Goals: Essential to Learning

“Students can reach any target that they know about and that holds still for them.” Rick Stiggins, 2006

Learning goals, intentions, targets, destinations – lots of names for a concept that is critically important to student learning and motivation. In Ontario, we use the phrase “learning goals”.

Learning goals are statements describing for learners what they are to learn. They describe, “in language that students understand, the lesson-sized chunks of information, skills, and reasoning processes that students will come to know deeply”. Moss & Brookhart, 2012.

Let’s have a closer look at that definition:

“Language that students understand” — the curriculum is written using pedagogical language, as well as language specific to a subject or discipline. Learning goals help students understand what they are striving to learn by using language that is meaningful to them. In some cases, that means simplifying the language; in other cases, it may mean using the terminology of the discipline and guiding them to understand it.

“Lesson-sized chunks” — Learners benefit from knowing their ‘immediate’ learning goal – what I’m trying to learn in today’s lesson — but also from seeing those focused goals in the context of the ‘big picture’ — over several days, over the course of a unit, or throughout the school year. If you use the backward design method of planning learning, you’ll have actually created a ‘road map’ of the big ideas, the broad learning goals, and the specific learning goals that describe the more focused bits of knowledge and skills that students will be developing.

Why is it important to the learner to know this? Mary Alice White explains it in her article, “The View from the Pupil’s Desk”, by comparing students’ experiences in the classroom to travelers on a ship with an unknown destination — they don’t know where they’re going, where they are, or even when they will arrive. As a result, the daily activities become their focus, rather than the voyage or the destination. In your classroom, do students know what they are trying to achieve, both in terms of the big picture and the details? Or are they simply passive passengers in the classroom ship? Learning goals — and their accompanying success criteria — make this important information accessible to them.

Identifying the “information, skills, and reasoning processes” that they are to develop — By taking the time to examine the curriculum expectations, and crafting the learning goals, both educators and students will benefit. As you ‘deconstruct’ the expectations, analysing the knowledge and skills contained in them, you will come to greater clarity about what is to be learned (and isn’t!), and when shared and clarified with students, the learning goals will provide them greater clarity and focus for their efforts.

Here is an example of a learning goal developed from an expectation in the Ontario Curriculum: Mathematics that demonstrates the above principles:


“…the more transparent the teacher makes the learning goals, the more likely the student is to engage in the work needed to meet the goal.” Hattie, 2012

running-297154_1280 One last thought — and a call to action:

Learning goals empower learners to take ownership of their learning by making information about learning accessible to them.

Learning goals do this by:

  • Describing the knowledge, skills and understandings set out in pedagogical language in the curriculum using language that is student-friendly and grade appropriate;
  • Focusing on manageable chunks of learning;
  • Using a tone that conveys to students that they are members of a community of learners supporting each other to achieve.

If you’re not yet using learning goals with your students, hopefully we have made a compelling case for why you should. Give it a try! Start small – choose one subject, or a unit of learning, to introduce the concept to your learners. As you begin, you may simply identify focused learning goals for individual lessons. As your understanding evolves, you will help your students to see the ‘roadmap’ of the learning – how all the small goals fit together into the big picture of the learning.

We encourage you to share your examples and/or ask questions using the Comment section below. We’ll be posting more information and examples about designing a learning goal, and about how to share and clarify goals with learners, so visit us again soon!

Coming soon: Designing Effective Learning Goals

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Moss, C., & Brookhart, S. (2012). Learning Targets: Helping students aim for understanding in today’s lesson. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2005). The Ontario curriculum, Grades 1 to 8: Mathematics. Toronto, ON: Author.

Stiggins, R. J., Arter, J. A., Chappuis, J., & Chappuis, S. (2006). Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right – using it well. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

White, M. A. (1968). The View from the Pupil’s Desk. The Urban Review 2, April, 5 – 7.


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