How to Write a Learning Target for High School Step-By-Step

A learning target seems so benign; it’s just one sentence explaining what your lesson will be for the day. But behold, my fellow teachers, this little baby can make or break your observation rating. It is the first thing you discuss with your students. Your students will analyze and reflect upon it at the culmination of the lesson . And you, too, will measure the efficacy of your lesson using the MIGHTY learning target.

A learning target is written in the first person from the point of view of the student. It usually starts, “I will be able to…” The entire sentence should include what the student will be able to accomplish by the end of the lesson and how.

You should not simply write the target on the board or as the header of your PowerPoint. Craft it to guide the lesson for you and your students and utilize it throughout the lesson.

I teach 180 days a year, 2 or 3 different subjects. That entails creating 540 learning targets for one year school — whew! Let me use that experience to quickly make you a pro.

Why is it in the first person?

Prior to using learning targets most schools in my district (New York City) used objectives. They entailed second person, “students will be able to…” Prior to that we used aims, which were ALWAYS in the form of a question.

The pedagogical reasoning behind learning targets and creating them in the first person is to empower students. They should be involved and take ownership of their learning. Phrasing the goal for the day directly for them helps to set that tone. An objective is more cerebral and feels more like something the teacher should worry about , “It’s her objective, not mine.”

At least that’s what the scholars in some ivy tower have decided. And if one of them writes a white paper on a topic, and a superintendent or other educational leader decides this is the ticket to better school stats guess who’d better learn how to do it? Yup, you.

If I sound a bit jaded that’s because I am. I have been teaching for almost 20 years. On average, every two years have brought with it a revolutionary new way to improve student outcomes. It’s alchemy in action: use this formula and everything turns to gold! Ahem — no.

However, I have taken away nuggets from each new educational philosophy. Even if you try a new recipe that turns out to be inedible, you might be introduced to a spice you’ve never tried before.

The bottom line, as I mentioned earlier, is that you don’t have to embrace the belief that a proper learning target will transform — well — anything. You do, however, need to follow the rules and keep your job; most of us like to eat every day, and not just ramen noodles!

Wow, that was a rant! SO, back to learning targets, always start them with: I will be able to (accomplish something by doing this)

Part 2 of the Learning Target

The second part of the sentence should be what the students will accomplish during the lesson. I will be able to…

  • analyze the causes of the Industrial Revolution
  • compare primary and secondary producers in the food chain
  • factor polynomials
  • identify the conflict in a story

You might have noticed that each learning target includes a skill on the depth of knowledge (DOK) chart. Try and be mindful of what level you are using. I always try to make it a level 3 or 4: analyze, synthesize, hypothesize (whenever you’re “izing” it’s high level — I know summarize is not, but all rules have exceptions!)

When you’re planning your lesson it should be a part of a continuum based on your curriculum and a unit plan. Read about the difference between a unit and lesson plan here. You know what content you want to teach; that’s the easy part. The hard part is crafting an exciting, differentiated, high-level, well-timed, inclusive lesson that covers the topic in exactly the length of your teaching period. No pressure!

I start with the content, then look for a resource: primary source document, video, graph, etc. With that in hand I stare at the DOK chart (there’s one on the wall where I prep my lessons) and try to get inspired by one of the high level skills. Sometimes you’ve taught the lesson before and have a basis to work with, which is great.

I’m a social studies teacher, so let’s go with the aim of getting the kids to understand the causes of imperialism. That’s level 1 — no good. Bad teacher. So how about if they “analyze” the causes or “draw conclusions” as to which cause was the most important? Bingo, level 3 and 4. Bringing students to a more rigorous level usually involved having them do something with the newly-learned facts.

As you’re writing the action portion of your learning target it can warn you that the students may not be engaging in a rigorous enough activity, simply by noting the verb and where it lives vis-a-vis depth of knowledge.

Part 3, the Final Part

Now you have: I will be able to (level 3 or 4 DOK verb). The final part of the target requires you to explain HOW they will attain their lofty goal. Are they going to read, watch a film, discuss or debate in a group? Let’s finish the learning targets that were started above:

  • I will be able to analyze the causes of the Industrial Revolution by participating in a gallery walk
  • I will be able to compare primary and secondary producers in the food chain through chart comparisons
  • I will be able to factor polynomials by grouping expressions
  • I will be able to identify the conflict in a story by reading and discussion

Bam, you nailed it!

What do I do with the Learning Target after it’s written?

There are 3 ways in the average lesson that you will use your fabulously written learning target.

Your students use it

First, at the beginning of your class you or a student should read it aloud. If you don’t draw attention to it the kiddos will ignore it. Even if it’s part of the heading in their notebooks they don’t compute what’s being written. Most students write word-by-word and their brain is not comprehending the sum of the words.

It is a way to orient the class as to what is going to happen for the next 50 minutes. Mentally they can get prepared to read, write, debate, etc. I sometimes get push-back: “No, I don’t want to have to get up for a gallery walk!” Now is the time to work your magic to sell them on the activity.

The second way the learning target comes in handy is at the end of the lesson. Students can self-assess or peer-assess how well they’ve achieved the target. This is a great exit ticket. I like use emojis instead of understand, somewhat understand, still need clarification. Students circle the appropriate emoji expression and explain their choice.

Another choice is for them to identify what they are clear on and what they are still unsure of. It’s similar to the red light, yellow light, green light many teachers use.

You use it

Finally, you should also be keeping your eye on the target. Does it align with what the students are actually doing? Or did you craft an awesome-sounding learning target but in actuality the students are reading from the textbook and answering questions?

It is sooo helpful to reflect, even for a minute or two, on the quality of your lesson and make a note somewhere. You will be teaching for many years and will probably teach the same course again. I type a quick shorthand note to myself at the bottom of my lesson plan for the next time. and it’s been invaluable.

If you have a good learning target and students are in fact engaged in the listed activity you are halfway home to receive a good evaluation if administration were to pop in for an observation.

You can show evidence of rigorous learning just by quoting from the target and showing student work as evidence of your success in reaching the target. Who’s a highly effective teacher now?!


Writing an effective learning target will come effortlessly after you do it a few times. If that’s what is expected in your school district you’re ready — maybe you can run the next professional development!

If you need some guidance on how to write your actual lesson plan check out this article.

The secret to being a highly effective teacher is understanding that the magic is in the little things. There is no one hack or light bulb moment.

It’s a lot like playing an instrument. Lots of practice and incremental improvements adds up to a talented artist. I believe that teaching is more an are form than a science.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

Recent Posts