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Expectations: Learning Outcomes Through the Eyes of Students

By Robert Holl, Cofounder

Reading standards identify the skills, strategies, and concepts students are expected to learn at each grade level. Teachers use summative assessment to determine whether students have achieved proficiency by the end of each school year. Diagnostic and formative assessments are used to measure progress along the way.

In my previous post, I introduced teacher clarity as a model for targeted learning. It’s a model (with its high effect size of .75) that leads to greater student achievement. Teachers design lessons following two important considerations: 1) clearly defined expectations: letting students know what they will learn from the lesson, and 2) success criteria: a way for both teachers and students to know learning has been achieved.

Turning Standards Into Targeted Learning

Mastery of standards-based learning outcomes typically takes several lessons to achieve, and the time required to master a key skill, strategy, or concept varies greatly from student to student. Since standards are written for teachers and are often quite broad, it is not appropriate to cite student learning expectations verbatim from a standards document.

In fact, standards usually need to be unpacked into smaller units of instruction, which constitute targeted learning. Once the units of instruction have been determined, it is important to establish the progression of learning experiences that will lead to the mastery of a particular standard. Expectations can then be defined for each lesson, creating a learning progression.

An essential component to academic achievement involves giving students a clear understanding of what success looks like once they’ve mastered a skill or concept. This success criteria is, in the words of John Hattie, what makes learning visible to students.

What Success Looks Like

It would be unfair, and would place students at a distinct disadvantage, to immerse them in a lesson without first telling them 1) what they’re expected to learn, and 2) how they’ll know they’ve learned it. Yet students often begin a learning activity without knowing what mastery of that learning actually looks like.

For the purposes of evaluation, it is equally as important for teachers to know whether students are successfully completing lessons as it is for students to know what success looks like.

Sharing learning expectations with students is useful only if students understand those expectations. Therefore, teachers should state expectations in ways all students will understand. And because not all students will progress at the same rate, nor will they all begin from the same place, teachers should develop a learning progression that accommodates all learners in the classroom.

Let’s use a sports analogy: in basketball, shooting free throws is an important skill to master.

  • It’s not enough to simply expect students to shoot successfully into the basket while standing 15 feet away.
  • In this case, the success criteria would include something like consistently hitting 8 out of 10 shots successfully. At that point, the student will know she is proficient and has mastered the skill of shooting free throws. Learning will be visible.
  • Additionally, depending on the student’s developmental level, expectations might need to be adjusted to lead the student appropriately down the path to success. Such adjustments are a crucial aspect of the art of teaching.

Bring Clarity to Teaching and Learning

Deciding when to deliver learning expectations and success criteria is also important. It’s generally best, and often seems logical, to deliver expectations before the start of a lesson. But there may be situations in which waiting is beneficial, such as when the teacher is employing a discovery or exploration strategy.

The learning and mastery of any skill, strategy, or concept tends to be a multi-step process. The journey often requires check points along the way. Students and teachers may need to gauge progress several times. Occasionally reviewing learning expectations can be helpful to ensure that students are on track. Providing students with feedback along the way helps maintain a focus on learning expectations. Ending each lesson by referring back to the learning expectations and success criteria forms an important part of teacher clarity.

The key takeaway here is that teachers can expect students to achieve specific learning goals only if they’ve taken steps to set clear expectations. These goals should be described in terms that all students can understand, ensuring teachers and their students know what successful learning of the skill or concept looks like, and checking on progress along the way. These practices bring clarity to teaching and to learning.