A Clear Direction: How To Help Students Understand Learning Goals

understand learning goals

A Clear Direction: How to help students understand learning goals

By Janelle McGann

It makes sense that students might find it helpful to know where they’re going with their learning.

In the early 1970s, in an article entitled The view from the student’s desk, late American psychologist, academic and author Mary Alice White compared the experience of a student to that of a sailor…

…on a ship sailing across an unknown sea to an unknown destination. An adult would be desperate to know where he is going. But a child only knows he is going to school… The chart is neither available nor understandable to him … Very quickly, the daily life on board the ship becomes all important… The daily chores, the demands, the inspections become the reality, not the voyage, nor the destination.

understand learning goals

She was right. In general, adults always want to know where we’re going.

But for our students? We either don’t provide a chart (or these days a GPS or Google Maps), or if we do, it makes minimal sense.

As teachers, if we really want to effectively support the learning of all our students, we need to be communicating, explaining, and showing and sharing learning goals before, during, and at the end of the lesson. And continue to do so as each lesson unfolds in the sequence of lessons for the whole learning unit.

If we use the analogy of our learning goals/objectives/intentions as being like a GPS, our students need to know:

  • Where they are
  • The distance to their destination
  • How long until they get there
  • What to do when they make a turn.

If students know what they have to do, they can all potentially do very well. In fact, more students will achieve better results and be empowered to use their time more effectively. Let’s take a closer look at learning intentions and success criteria.


Learning intentions

‘What’ students will learn

Success criteria

How to recognise success

The learning intentions spell out what it is the students will learn from the lesson, in terms of what they will know, understand and be able to do. If learning intentions spell out what students will learn, then success criteria show students how to recognise success.

Taken together, learning intentions and success criteria express the main teaching points, key ingredients, processes and the key steps that students need to master to successfully learn the targeted learning goals and content.

Using both learning intentions and success criteria with students improves their understanding, by keeping them informed about how they’ll be assessed on their learning.

It also empowers students, because it involves them in their own performance and learning and enables them to see what quality looks like. As a result, the goal posts are clarified and don’t keep shifting.

In time, students who become familiar with working with learning intentions and success criteria can take a more independent approach to their learning, and can understand how to apply those success criteria to their learning and where they are currently at.

They can use the success criteria to assess their own progress and achievements, give feedback to each other, address their own concerns and identify areas for improvement.

Another bonus? Success criteria also help both teachers and our students give much more accurate feedback.

White, M. A. (1971). ‘The view from the student’s desk’. In M. L. Silberman (Ed.), The experience of schooling p. 340 New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

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