Why Students Don’t Care About Your Learning Targets

So, this post is about a pet peeve.

I am a firm believer in the thoughtful use of learning targets to foster learning. When I shifted to using and improving my use of learning targets in my classroom, I noticed that I became a more effective teacher. My students’ learning improved by all measures.

As an instructional coach, I have seen many teachers artfully drive lessons with their learning targets, and I have seen other classes, often without the effective use of learning targets, where students were confused, frustrated, or completely off-task.

I hear some educators totally dismiss the power of learning targets, saying…”My students don’t care about them.” So, in this post, let’s analyze why that might be the case.

Students may not care about learning targets because…

1. There are no learning targets.

There may be great and engaging activities, but the teacher has not defined the goal of the lesson. So things just move from one activity to the next. Some students may really enjoy the lessons, but they do horribly on assessments. Some students may not see the point of the class.

2. Students haven’t seen the targets.

It’s hard to meet an expectation if you don’t know what it is. Many of us have the experience of having a teacher or boss who we never quite knew their expectations. How does that feel? In my case, it often causes anxiety or resentment. You may have clearly defined what students should know and do, but if they don’t know, it could result in similar problems as having no targets.

3. The teacher still thinks the targets are for the administration and doesn’t understand that they are for the students.

I get it. Your administrators my expect to see learning targets in your lesson plans or on your board during walkthroughs. And, compliance is important sometimes to avoid unnecessary conflict in the workplace. But, the bottom line is that sharing and actively using learning targets in your class helps students’ confidence, motivation, and effectiveness. Simply putting them on the board may please an administrator, but it will not assist learning in the classroom. Students must actively use the targets.

4. The targets are essentially the standards.

It’s great that the instruction is aligned to the standards. However, standards are not targets. Standards are often broad goals for instruction, while targets are measurable outcomes for students over the course of one or two class periods. While posting a standard like…

“Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text…”

…may be impressive to colleagues (or administrators), this language really means nothing to students. A better target might be,

“Describe Okonkwo’s feelings toward Ikemefuna, and cite quotations from the text to support your assertions.”

This target is more specific and meaningful to students.

5. Students don’t understand the language of the targets.

This is also the problem of essentially using standards as learning targets. Targets need to be comprehensible to students. Learning targets in student-friendly language are often most empowering for English-language learners and students living in poverty. Student-friendly targets make the teacher’s motivations for class activities less mysterious. They also create a bridge from social language to academic language. Targets should include content vocabulary, as the teacher and students can discuss the meanings of the vocabulary by unpacking and discussing the language of the targets early in the lesson.

6. The targets aren’t assessed.

How do we know if we have met the learning targets? Sometimes informal assessment like a thumbs up/thumbs down does the trick. Other times students should reflect and self-assess on the targets, perhaps with a Likert scale and explanation for their ratings. Other times it’s appropriate for students to complete an exit ticket or a short quiz. But, targets and formative assessment go hand-in-hand. Targets tell students what they should learn, and formative assessment helps them and us see if they learned it!

7. The students just don’t care.

It’s true sometimes. However, we should not make this the default explanation of why learning targets are not working in our classrooms. Saying this really insinuates that we have little to no influence or responsibility in the matter.

There are many ways that we can each use targets more effectively, and most of the time, effective learning targets and formative assessments are the most powerful components of our instruction. So, if your students don’t seem to care, honestly assess the other six points to see if there is an area where you can super-charge your use of learning targets!

4 thoughts on “Why Students Don’t Care About Your Learning Targets

  1. Jan Sturgis

    Thanks for this point on post, Kenny. They can become just a part of a checklist. I appreciate your drawing my attention to best practices with these targets.

    1. Kenneth McKee Post author

      Thanks, Jan. I think we can all keep thinking about how learning targets can help facilitate students’ learning. I agree that sometimes our intentionality with these can suffer.

  2. Kendra Cameron Jarvis

    I also like asking students to co-construct the learning target with me. This way we write it in student friendly terms and they have buy in.


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