Learning Goals

What are Learning Goals? 

Learning goals define what proficiency looks like in concise, student-friendly language. While educators may break down the goals into different sized learning targets or progressions, what is crucial is that students understand what they are learning and that they are able to make it relevant to their lives.  Explicit, measurable, transferable learning goals empower students to have greater ownership over their education. Teachers communicate learning goals by posting learning targets and/or sharing learning scales, single-point rubrics, or checklists. They use learning goals to design (or co-design) assessments, instruction, and checks for understanding along the way.

Why it’s important: 

Learning goals are essential to proficiency-based planning.  If we don’t know, clearly and explicitly, what we want students to learn, how we will know how to plan instruction, design assessments, and measure progress?  Learning goals define the beginning and the end: they focus teacher planning, student learning, and assessment. 

Goals need to be introduced and referred to so students can articulate what they are learning and are conscious of what they should know, understand and do to demonstrate proficiency. 

To create meaningful learning goals, we unpack the teacher-centered language of proficiencies, standards, and performance indicators to describe what proficiency looks like from a student perspective. The student-centered language of learning goals provides clarity and transparency so that we can design clear instruction and measure student progress. 

Schools and districts clearly state what is important for all learners by making public the learning goals all students will master. Learning can then be extended into and supported by the community.

In a proficiency-based system, learning goals enable student voice and choice. Learning can be tailored to needs, interests, strengths when we’ve created and shared clear proficiency goal language and encourage students to approach the how, when, and where to meet the shared end goal. Clarity enables flexible pathways toward a shared outcome. 

How it fits into the proficiency-based education ecosystem:

In proficiency-based learning environments, learning goals provide criteria for proficiency (or mastery).  Educators use them to design and measure student success on the summative assessment(s).  Learning goals guide the teacher and the learner as they create and navigate meaningful instruction, including flexible learning pathways and differentiated instruction.  And formative assessments provide checkpoints on the way to meeting learning goals, allowing both learners and teachers to fine-tune the instruction and the educational experiences needed to deepen the knowledge and skill development necessary to meet the goals. 

What learning goals look like in practice: 

Let’s say you’re an 8th-grade social studies teacher in Vermont designing an upcoming Global Citizenship unit with a focus on geography. You want to ground your unit in students’ lived experiences. Many of them  produce maple syrup with their families and have been talking about how climate change may impact this process. Some are deeply involved in the ski industry and have concerns about how shifts in climate may affect snowfall. And a few families are farmers, these students have expressed an interest in how climate change might change farming in Vermont.

You decide to focus your unit on the impact climate change is having on Vermont’s environment and culture.  For your unit, you select both content and transferable skill proficiencies and performance indicators:

Content Proficiency– 

Geography: Students use geographic inquiry and reasoning to propose solutions to local, national and global issues. (Category- Geographic Representations: Spatial Views of the World)

Performance Indicators– 

  1. Construct maps to represent and explain the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics. (D2.Geo.1) 
Transferable Skill Proficiency- 

Informed & Integrative Thinking

Performance Indicators-

  1. Apply knowledge from various disciplines and contexts to real life situations. 

From these performance indicators, you unpack the knowledge, understanding, and skills students will need to demonstrate proficiency. Goals are often written as ‘I can’ statements that define what students will do to demonstrate this knowledge, understanding, and skills.

One way that educators (and students!) go about this is by creating a KUD: identifying what students will Know (vocabulary, facts), Understand (concepts), and Do (skills). Quick tip: a dictionary and thesaurus can help you identify the real meaning embedded in the indicators and help you select precise verbs.  Here is the KUD we created for these performance indicators:

Know Understand Do
  • Map features
  • Legend
  • Cultural characteristics – how humans use the land
  • Environmental characteristics- land features
  • Maps can be used to represent different types of information
  • There are relationships between environment and culture
  • Map features and legends allow us to interpret a map
  • Compare representations (maps, images, etc) over time to reveal spatial patterns
  • Construct maps to represent and explain patterns
  • Apply knowledge from various disciplines and contexts to real life situations

In this case we realized that the environmental characteristics 8th graders need to understand are land features, and the cultural characteristics are the ways humans use the land. The skills listed in the Do of the KUD are how learners demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through skills that range in complexity. Our resulting learning goals are as follows:

Learning Goals for Geography Performance Indicator:


  • I can create maps that include representations of how humans use the land and features of the land at various points in time or space. 
  • I can use my map to explain patterns of human use and land features.


Learning Goal for Informed & Integrative Thinking Performance Indicator:


  • I can use information from a variety of subjects and perspectives to develop and support a point of view in a real world context.


Once you have defined your learning goals, you use them to backward plan your unit.  

  • These goals become the criteria for your summative assessment. Students’ task is to create maps derived from a variety of sources to represent the features of the land, to show how humans use the land over time or space, and to develop a recommendation based on their analysis. Students will have the choice to demonstrate proficiency in their choice of context (maple sugaring, skiing, farming, or some other relevant topic) and to present their learning in the format of their choosing.  
  • Meaningful instruction is designed with these goals in mind.  All students will need to know how to collect and make meaning of information from a variety of subjects and perspectives, design maps, use representations to show human use and land features, use a map to explain patterns, and develop a point of view based on information.  You plan instruction to guide students as they learn and opportunities for students to practice these developing skills — communicating learning goals that are specific to the work at hand (sometimes broken down further into learning targets). These include whole-class instruction, collaborative work group sessions, mini-lessons, and more.  Students often, but not always, have a choice in how they progress through instruction.
  • As students practice, you routinely provide opportunities for formative feedback and reflection as they progress towards the goals. This feedback guides their learning process and the instruction you provide. Scaffolds throughout (including graphic organizers, mental models, checklists, anticipation guides, etc.) inform both your and your students’ understanding of their growth AND help students toward independent mastery of these learning goals.

Remember, learning goals are NOT task-specific.  Learners can meet them in a variety of ways, and may need more than one opportunity to do so. 

How do I know if I’m on the right track?

Learning Goals Learning Scale
I have identified and prioritized the standards and proficiencies that guide my instruction.   I develop learning goals connected to proficiencies, standards, and performance indicators I develop learning goals that 

  • Are derived from proficiencies and describe what students will know, understand, and be able to do.
  • Use student-friendly language
  • Can be applied in a variety of contexts
  • Allow students to demonstrate proficiency in a way that is not constrained by a specific task/assessment

I communicate learning goals to students to promote ownership of their learning.

I use learning goals to design assessments and instruction, communicate learning progressions, provide formative feedback, and guide students in their learning journey.

I co-create learning goals with my students.



Learning Targets Toolbox


Learning Target If you are curious about… Examples and resources to explore:
I develop learning goals that are:
Building & Refining Learning Scales 4 Ways to Begin Using Scales for Assessment

The What, Why and How of Learning Scales

Directions for Writing a Learning Scale

Tips for Refining Learning Scales Over Time

Developing learning goals or targets that verify proficiency Verification Criteria
I communicate learning goals to students to promote ownership of their learning. Communicate learning goals so students understand the end goal and have choice in getting there. Choose Your Own Adventure

Introducing and Acclimatizing Students to Learning Scales

Why We Should (and How We Can) Engage Students in the Assessment Process

I use learning goals to design assessments and instruction, communicate learning progressions, provide formative feedback, and guide students in their learning journey. Proficiency-Based teaching and learning in Vermont: the who, why and how

Winooski’s Graduate Proficiencies & Expectations

How do you measure success with project based learning?


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