Collaboratively Developing Students’ Understanding of the Learning Goals (Part 1)

Many teachers who have tried to develop their students’ self‐assessment skills have found that the first and most difficult task is to get students to think of their work in terms of a set of goals. (Black et al, 2004)

You’ve heard the phrase making thinking visible. Educators may refer to this action as an assessment (or instructional) strategy of revealing students’ thinking. Observing, listening to and conversing with students about their meaning-making is essential.  But, in order to do this effectively, what needs to be in place?

As described in The Assessment Loop learning goals and assess sharedsuccess criteria are a prerequisite to ensuring that students are able to reflect on their learning and set personal goals. The phrase making thinking visible embraces the notion that not only students but educators as well must make their thinking transparent.

Sharing and Unpacking Learning Goals:

Before you can take action to help students understand the learning goals, it is essential that you, the educator, have a clear answer to the question, ‘What do I want my students to learn?’ (First Steps: Planning for Learning). As Stephen Covey suggests, having a clear vision of the learning goal helps you define the steps along the way, being mindful that different paths and detours may be necessary.

To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction. (Covey, S., 1989)

How might you develop students’ understanding of the learning goals? Will you share and unpack learning goals at the outset of a learning cycle or throughout the learning phase as a way to deepen and consolidate understanding? Or both? Aligning the vision with the appropriate next step makes learning transparent, boosts students’ ownership and engagement and increases depth of understanding.

Sharing Learning Goals at the Outset of Learning:

One way to begin the conversation with students is to simply ‘tell’ or post the learning goal at the outset of the learning. It’s not the most effective way, but it is a start. To be effective, you’ll need to find ways to engage learners in thinking about the learning goals as the learning progresses.

Caution: There may be unintended consequences to sharing the learning goal at the outset of the learning. For example, if the lesson is inquiry-based or investigative, the learning goal may be giving away the ‘results’ of the inquiry or investigation. In this case, sharing a learning goal at the beginning of a learning experience should be focused on a skill or a process rather than on the content (e.g. “We are learning to determine the relationships among the sides of a right-angled triangle” rather than “We are learning that the sides of a right angled triangle are related by the equation a2 + b2 = c2”). The content learning goal can be developed at the end of the lesson.

You may decide to share or develop a learning goal with students at the outset of learning to activate background knowledge or provoke thinking.  Asking, ‘What do you think you already you know about…?’ gives students a glimpse of the learning to come and will create the mental velcro needed to attach future learning. Responses to this question also act as feedback to the educator (i.e. assessment for learning) about students’ prior knowledge and support making instructional decisions related to sequencing experiences.

Consider these scenarios:

A grade 1 educator shares a curriculum expectation (Ontario Language Curriculum Grade 1: 2.3 Communicate ideas and information orally), and asks students to discuss what they think it means. Some students know what communicating means – “to tell” or “to share what you are thinking with someone else”. Others clarify that “orally” means “out loud”. Creating an opportunity to talk about the learning goal makes it easier for students to develop a shared understanding of what they will be learning. To see an example of this kind of interaction, click on Segment 3: Sharing Learning Goals.

A grade 4 educator shares a grade 4 learning goal about fractions (e.g. We are learning to compare and order fractions.) and asks students to represent what they remember about fractions from the previous year. This activates their prior learning about this learning goal, and gives the educator an opportunity to gather information about what learners already know and can do.

A grade 9 math educator shares a grade 8 learning goal at the beginning of the course (e.g. We are learning to represent linear growing patterns using graphs, algebraic expressions, and equations) to re-introduce the importance of the big idea of multiple representations. They then share the Grade 9 learning goal, (We are learning to connect various representations of a linear relation, and solve problems using these representations), and ask learners what connections they see.

When we invest time up front to build the vision [of what students are to be learning], we gain it back later in increased student motivation and the resulting higher-quality work. (Chappuis, 2006)

Strengthening Students’ Understanding Throughout the Cycle of Learning:

 learning goalsSharing the learning goal at the beginning of the lesson is a start, but it’s not enough to ensure that learners internalise and understand what their goals are. Referring back to the learning goal during the learning and engaging students on an ongoing basis in thinking about their goals enables students to monitor their own progress and allows the educator to uncover misconceptions.

We have witnessed many effective strategies that educators infuse into their assessment and instructional practices. Collaboratively strengthening students’ understanding of learning goals throughout the cycle of learning includes:

  • Building a visual roadmap of the learning goals collaboratively as they are experienced. This could be posted on a bulletin board as a concept map; recorded in students’ learning journals;  or represented in mapping software (e.g. Mindomo). This serves as a ‘roadmap’ helping students visualize the learning journey and will assist students to monitor progress of their own learning.
  • Asking students how a task or investigation connects to the learning goal. Giving students opportunities to make connections to the learning experiences in relation to the learning goal keeps big ideas in sight or metaphorically attaches meaning to the mental velcro! “What do you think we learned today? What did you notice about…?” Students can share ideas with each other first; then debrief as a whole class, documenting a shared understanding.
  • Using an exit card as a tool to support reflection. Ask students to individually reflect on what they learned today; how they improved; and what they need to learn more about. Encourage students to respond to, ‘How do you know you are meeting the learning goal?’ Download Sample Exit Card 
  • Using the information from exit cards or mini-conferences with students to activate the learning for the next day. Compile the data from exit cards and share information with students in order to reinforce the learning goal or draw attention to misconceptions.

Students can only achieve learning goals if they understand those goals, assume some ownership of them, and can assess progress. (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006)

For administrators: How might you collaboratively develop educators’ understanding of the learning goals within the school improvement planning process?

running-297154_1280One last thought – and a call to action! Students need an anchor to help concepts and ideas hold still for them as they develop understanding. Learning goals, both long term and incrementally sequenced ones, provide stability and structure for meaning-making. Why not make a commitment to try one of the above ways to deepen your learners’ understanding of the learning goal? And after you’ve tried, why not ask students, while they’re working, “What do you think you’re learning today?” You may be surprised by the response!

Use the comment box to let us know how you share and unpack learning goals with students, and how your students respond to your efforts to help them understand the learning goals.

Coming Soon: Collaboratively Developing Students’ Understanding of Success Criteria plus Monitoring Learning Using Learning Goals and Success Criteria

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 9–21.

Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jones, D. (2007) Speaking, listening, planning and assessing: the teacher’s role in developing metacognitive awareness, Early Child Development and Care, 177: 6-7.

Nicol, D., Macfarlane‐Dick, D.  (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, 31:2, 199-218.

Ontario Ministry of Education. Video: Assessment for Learning with Young Learners. Segment Three: Sharing Learning Goals with Students. Downloaded September 17, 2018.

Stiggins, R., Arter, J., Chappuis, S. (2006). Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing it right, using it well. Portland: Educational Testing Service.


  1. I am learning like you have mentioned it is more than just sharing a learning goal. The reflections that students act on is the learning especially when they focus on how they have accomplished their goal and next steps. I have learned to ask the questions how did you learn than what did you learn?


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