It’s Just a Jump to the Left…And Then a Step to the Right

Part 2 of the assessment ramblings of a TurboNerd.

Complexity. We’re good at it.  I mean REALLY good at it. We have a tendency to take straightforward concepts and overdo them…overthink them…overanalyze them…overcomplicate them.  Why? Because why focus on three or four steps when you can have twenty-seven? Because more steps must mean better…right?  Or…Because simple is sometimes hard to do.  As Steve Jobs noted, “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean…to make it simple.”  If you haven’t noticed already, I like simple. It is my firm belief that our profession is much cleaner, practical, and effective when we sort through the layers of complexity that have been piled on over the years and boil it down to its fundamental process. You know that process…determining what we want our students to learn, utilizing our expertise help them learn it, assessing their progress, helping close any gaps, and deciding where to take them next.  Simple in theory…complex in implementation.  However, at the core of every good classroom/every good lesson/every good resource you’ll find elements of that process. You might have to dig a bit…brush aside the pile of acronyms and dive past the BigDeal® initiative du jour…but it’s there…GOOD TEACHING. Deep down, we all do it already…So why bother talking about it? Because sometimes we get bogged down in the complexity. Sometimes we get hung up on the individual steps and lose sight of the big picture. Because sometimes we forget to step back and run it through from the students’ perspective.  Because we have an entire network of colleagues out there from whom we can learn.  Because sometimes we come across ideas that click…that work…that transform our individual practice…and it’s those ideas we need to share with each other.

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The formative assessment process…Assessment FOR Learning…that’s the idea that clicked for me.

In Gimme Three Steps, Mister we noted that the true formative assessment process (the process itself, mind you…not the concept of weekly quizzes or off-the-shelf assessment products) is rooted in three basic steps.  Like any good process, the first step is setting a clear goal.  After all, it’s pretty tough to get where you’re going if you don’t know where that “where” is…And if it’s tough for US to get there without a clear goal, just imagine how difficult it must be for the STUDENTS! As noted in the previous post, it’s the students’ perspective that matters. That’s the necessary switch.  That’s the a’ha!-dur-slap-my-forehead element of formative assessment that clicked for me. And that’s what I’d like to dig into in the next few posts.  So let’s start digging!

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Step 1: Set The Target(s)

  • Teacher Perspective: What Do I Want My Students to Learn?
  • Student Perspective: Where Am I Going?

The first step in an effective formative assessment process is to set a clear target…to provide a ‘hook’ for our students so they know exactly where it is we intend to take them through the upcoming learning. We talk a lot about ‘feedback’ and its importance in developing a growth mindset and providing a means for students to close their learning gap…but before we can even think about providing feedback, we have to take a jump to the left. We need to feed them up before we step to the right and feed them back.  From our student’s perspective, they need to know exactly where it is they are going.  That’s the critical element. Without a clear target, our students have limited context for our feedback.  Without a clear goal, our students can’t self-assess or engage in any meaningful reflection about their learning. Without a defined destination, our students are left to view each lesson as a disconnected bit of learning rather than an essential step towards an ultimate goal. So how do we set that target?

Easy, you say! After all, the BigDeal® initiative in many districts 4 years ago was to ensure learning objectives were put on the board at the beginning of every lesson. The objective’s up…the box on the administrator’s walkthrough/observation form is checked…and we’re good to go! Right? Well…almost. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, for many the push for learning targets and objectives has been diminished from a powerful learning tool for students to a basic look-for in the classroom environment…a checked box on a walkthrough form rather than a driving force behind the learning process.  While having an objective/target on the board is a great start, it’s not enough. To truly tap in to the potential of a target as a learning tool, we have to expand on its use. How? Well, let’s simplify it…how about a few steps?


Set the target from the students’ perspective. Objectives language can be gross. Standards language is often disgusting. Both are intended for teachers, not students. We want learning targets to be appetizing, understandable, clear, and student-focused. As you plan your lesson, ask yourself, “Self…what is it I want students to say about their learning as they walk out the door?”  First, hopefully you can answer that question.  If not, you might want to rethink your lesson. Second, in an ideal classroom, we’d hope most students would walk out being able to say “I can…{insert new skill or learning here}.” THAT’s the target we want to set for them.  Rather than telling a 2nd grader their objective for the lesson is to use knowledge of characters, plot, and setting to make inferences, tell them that after the lesson you want them to be able to say “I can make guesses based on clues when I am reading.” Much more appetizing, understandable, and age-appropriate. Starting a lesson with a student-centered target brings them in to the learning process.  It says “Your goal is to be able to say this.” It sets them up with a growth mindset that “I can..” do this.  It provides a hook and a means for future feedback. It provides…well…a target. Now, not ALL lessons have to start with a target. In some cases, we want students to discover the target through their exploration of the lesson. However, at some point, they need to know it. Especially before they are set off on their own for independent practice or summative assessment. They need that simple hook before they practice or try to show what they know. Of course, not all learning targets can be simple. Language is important. Terminology matters….especially as the learning become more specialized. As students progress, learning targets may become more complex. But they can still be written from the student’s perspective. While it may be more complex, an AP Statistics target of “I can describe the relationship between sample size and the standard deviation of the sampling distribution.” is still more useful as a learning tool to a student than simply writing the objective on the board. But only if we take it a step further…

Refer to the target early…And often. If we stop at the first step, simply placing a target on the board and never referring to it again, we are missing out on the potential of targets for self-reflection and assessment. Targets become a powerful feedback tool when we bring them back and keep them in the forefront for students. Consider placing the targets on your assessment tools. Think about organizing the questions on your assessment by target. Or, at the very least, place the targets on feedback tools for those assessments. Provide a means for students to compare their assessment results to the targets that were set for them. Analyzing assessment performance against the set of learning targets gives students a means to reflect on exactly what they missed…not from the perspective of getting the question right or wrong, but from the perspective of what learning gaps exist. Linking the targets to the assessments, in the same language in which they were first presented, provides a reflective means for students to build upon…and it reminds them that even though they may have missed it on the assessment, they will eventually be able to say “I can…”

Show students what good…and bad…work looks like. Anyone who has attended an AP Reading is familiar with this idea. It’s the central concept behind rubric trainings prior to turning readers loose on thousands of student responses. It’s also a key element of the formative assessment process. Once students know what the target is, they need to know what a ‘good’ response looks like.  Exemplars are nothing new. We’ve been hanging examples of good work on our bulletin boards and in the halls for years. Students need good examples to get a sense of how they can show their learning. But don’t underestimate the power of ‘less than good’ responses. Sharing weaker responses along with the targets can lead to a rich discussion of what’s missing, what could be better, what should be done in order to best display learning. It provides a means for students to reflect on their own work as they progress and further reinforces the idea that improvement is continual and learning never stops. It’s also the basis for the FRAPPY process…but we’ll discuss that at another time 🙂 Once established, the learning target, coupled with good/bad exemplars becomes the basis for effective feedback…the topic for the next post.

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So…What do YOU do to utilize targets/objectives as a learning tool in your classroom?  What works for you? What have you tried? How have you taken that jump to the left, before taking that step to the right? What can you do differently this Fall to take learning targets to the next level?

Remember, keep it simple. You may have to work hard to do so, but like Mr. Jobs noted, once you do, you’ll be able to move mountains!

Recommended Reading:

  • Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning – Jan Chappuis
  • Embedded Formative Assessment – Dylan Wiliam
  • Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning – Brown, Roediger, McDaniel
  • Transformative Assessment – W. James Popham

2 thoughts on “It’s Just a Jump to the Left…And Then a Step to the Right

  1. Obviously I love the ideas here! Setting the goals and making it clear from the first day about where we are going each unit is central in my classes 🙂 great reading this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks again for sharing your process! I love your approach to sharing targets through a central problem on the first day and revisiting them throughout the unit. I have a sneaking suspicion that approach will be making its way into the next edition of Strive for a Five 😉


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