Friday / April 12

Implementing Formative Assessment – Practice #1: Using Learning Targets As Learning Tools

Formative Assessment

Contributed by Susan Creighton

The previous blog, “Using Formative Assessment to Create Active Learners,” listed five key practices that teachers can use to help students learn to make use of their own formative assessment data. Let’s look closer at the first of those practices:

Sharing learning targets in a way that ensures students understand what they mean.

To involve students fully in the formative assessment process, students need to understand the goal of their learning for a lesson. A solid learning target needs to convey two things to students: 1) the important idea to be learned, and 2) how they will know they have learned it.

For example, in a math classroom, this two-part learning target might be:

What I will learn:

There are different ways to compare ratios.

How I will know I’ve learned it:

  1. I can compare ratios correctly using multiplication or division.
  2. I can explain why each way of comparing ratios will work.

The teacher often knows the important learning idea in the target, but he or she may not necessarily share it explicitly with students. Without awareness of this important first piece of the learning target, students may learn how to do different things, but not develop a clear understanding of the idea that is supposed to accompany those activities. Articulating a two-part learning target makes this explicit to students.

Sharing the learning target with your students at several points during the lesson helps them to use it to support their learning.

  • At the start of the lesson: Use a strategy such as think/pair/share to give your students a few moments to think about what the learning target means, then to share out. This gives you an opportunity to clarify as needed.

How does this support learning?: Learning targets define the learning “destination” for students; sharing the learning target at the start of class is like starting a trip with the destination clearly in mind. Students who have a clearer sense of what they’re supposed to be learning are often more willing to engage in the lesson. Formative assessment guru Dylan Wiliam notes that struggling students benefit in particular:

Students who are not performing well may often have difficulty pinpointing the important learning in a lesson, and think they are required to do more than they actually are, because they struggle to prioritize the many different mathematics ideas or skills that arise during a lesson. As a result, they may end up doing more work, or just different work, than is desired. (Wiliam, 2011)

  • During the lesson: Pause during a lesson for a brief opportunity to revisit and clarify the learning target. Often, the learning target will make more sense to students once they have done some of the lesson’s activities.

How does this support learning?: It provides an important opportunity for students to summarize their learning to that point (“What do we know so far in relation to our learning target?”). You can also use it to refocus learning (“How does the activity we just did relate to our learning target?”), or to further clarify the learning target (“What do we mean by the phrase ‘comparing ratios?’”).

  • At the end of the lesson: A quick revisit of the learning target at the end of a lesson can serve as a valuable way to summarize how the lesson’s activities relate to the learning target.

How does this support learning?: Making an explicit connection between the lesson’s activities and the learning target can help students connect their experiences to the important learning idea stated in the target.

Teachers who learned to do this as part of a professional development experience, found that, with practice, it took very little time, paying off in more effective time on task for students, and fewer comments of “I don’t get it!” They also found that, rather than taking time away from learning, the revisiting served as an important part of the learning, paying off in more effective time on task for students and fewer comments of “I don’t get it!”

Rather than an add-on, this formative assessment practice can actually strengthen learning for students.


Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.




Susan Janssen Creighton

Susan Janssen Creighton has worked in mathematics education for 30 years, both in schools and at EDC, where her work has focused largely on K–12 mathematics curriculum development and mathematics teacher professional development. Currently, her work focuses on helping mathematics teachers adopt and successfully implement formative assessment practices, and on supporting teachers’ understanding and use of the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice. She is a co-author of Bringing Math Students Into the Formative Assessment Equation.


No comments

leave a comment