By Tom Many, EdD
“The learning target [of the lesson] can be made visible and accessible to students through the use of student-friendly language and the words ‘I Can’ to begin each learning target statement.” – H. Clayton, 2017, p. 2
One of the most unambiguous conclusions practitioners can draw from the research is clarity around a lesson’s learning target can help boost student achievement. When used consistently and in ways that reflect what we know is best practice, researchers have found translating learning targets into ‘I Can’ statements benefits students and their teachers.
John Hattie (2009) reported on the importance of communicating, “the intentions of the lessons and the notion of what success means for those intentions.” (p. 125) Likewise, Sandra Brookhart and Connie Moss (2014) identified eight separate studies between 1995 and 2011 that found teaching students the learning targets and success criteria for a lesson had a positive effect on learning. (p. 28) The terminology may vary, but regardless of whether they’re called Learning Targets, Student Learning Targets, Shared Learning Targets, Learning Intentions, or ‘I Can’ statements; all are designed to help students learn to higher levels.
“To be effective, the language we use must be descriptive, specific, developmentally appropriate and written in student friendly language.”
– C. Moss and S. Brookhart, 2012, pg. 48
One of the distinctive characteristics of ‘I Can’ statements is that they are narrow by design. In practice, ‘I Can’ statements are written in student friendly language and describe precisely what students will be expected to learn during a particular lesson. For example, ‘I can explain the difference between a first and second-hand account of an event in my own words’ is the kind of ‘I Can’ statement that might be found in a social studies class working to understand the importance of primary sources.
An ‘I Can’ statement represents a small part of a much larger learning progression and helps students maintain their trajectory towards mastery of what is essential. When done well, ‘I Can’ statements help students understand what the lesson is about, why it is important, how they will be expected to learn, and what they need to do in order to demonstrate they have learned. They also convey the progression of learning by connecting lessons from yesterday, to today, and tomorrow. Finally, ‘I Can’ statements enable students to do a better job of self-assessing their progress by empowering them to answer three questions about their learning:
- Where do I need to go?
- Where am I right now?
- What do I need to do to close the gap between where I need to go and where I am right now?
Jody Waltman provides a step-by-step guide for creating ‘I Can’ statements. Waltman encourages teams to begin by agreeing on the learning target (or targets) for the upcoming lesson. Once there is agreement, the team breaks the target into smaller bits of information. This initial conversation helps build shared knowledge about exactly what should be the outcome of the upcoming lesson(s).
Next, Waltman encourages teams to, “write a series of statements, each beginning with the words ‘I Can’ that outline the path students will follow and the skills they will master by the end of the instructional period.” Waltman encourages teams to avoid crafting ‘I Can’ statements in isolation; she believes it is better to reflect on what students will experience over a series of lessons during the course of an upcoming unit.
Finally, Waltman recommends teachers to, “write the ‘I Can’ statements at the target level stating just a simple, singular goal for a single lesson or set of lessons.” This helps narrow the focus of the ‘I Can’ statement which makes it easier for students to understand, facilitates the alignment of the team’s common assessments, and expedites the tracking of student progress.
“The ‘I Can’ statements frame the standards and goals in a student-friendly way. This allows them [students] to take ownership of their own learning to track and monitor their progress towards the learning targets.”- J. Waltman
Melanie Black (2017) describes additional benefits when students use ‘I Can’ statements to track their progress. Black explains that, “Students who track their grades regularly, not just at midterms and finals, take ownership of their learning, and are more likely to persevere in the face of challenges and take steps to proactively meet their goals. Tracking their progress empowers students to be independent and successful, which will not only benefit them in school but in any future endeavor.”
According to Robert Marzano (2010), “The strategy of tracking student progress on specific learning goals is well supported.” (p. 86) Marzano reports researchers found a 26-percentile point gain in student achievement when teachers tracked student progress using visual displays of formative assessments results. Even more significant, researchers found a 32-percentile point gain in student achievement when students tracked their own progress using visual displays of formative assessment results.
What Marzano, Black and others are saying is in addition to higher levels of student achievement, clearly communicating the intent of a lesson to students generates a host of other noteworthy benefits such as greater ownership of their learning, increased intrinsic motivation, and the development of more self-directed learners.
“When students understand exactly what they’re supposed to learn and what their work will look like when they learn it, they’re better able to monitor and adjust their work, select effective strategies, and connect current work to prior learning.” -Brookhart and Moss, (2014, p. 28)
What the most effective principals and teacher leaders understand is there is more to the effective use of ‘I Can’ statements than simply writing them on the board or posting them on the wall. The level of learning improves in classrooms where teachers embrace the expert advice of Brookhart, Marzano, Moss, Hattie, and others who have shown time and again that using ‘I Can’ statements to clearly communicate the intent of a lesson is a practice worth pursuing.
Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.
Black, M. (2017). Helping Students Track Their Own Progress. Student Futures. Retrieved 090320 at https://studentfutures.org/college-planning/helping-students-track-their-own-progress.
Brookhart, S. & Moss, C. (2014). “Learning Targets. On Parade” Educational Leadership, October 2014, v. 72, p 28-33.
Clayton, H. (2017). “Learning Targets. Making the Standards Come Alive!” Volume VI, Issue 1. Alexandria, VA: Just Ask Publications.
Crockett, H. (2013). “How I Can Statements Can Work for You.” Retrieved 090220 at http://www.theartofed.com/2013/02/21/how-i-can-statements-can-work-for-you/.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analysis Relating to Achievement. New York, NY. Routledge.
Mattos, M., DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R. & Many, T. (2016). Concise Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Marzano, R. (2010). “When Students Track Their Progress.” Educational Leadership, December 2009/January 2010, v. 67, p 86-87.
Moss, C. & Brookhart, S. (2012). Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today’s Lesson.” Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Moss, C., Brookhart, S. & Long, B. (2011). “Knowing Your Learning Target.” Educational Leadership, March 2011, v. 68, p 66-69.
Waltman, J. I Can Statements: A Tutorial Retrieved 090220 at https://www.sophia.org/tutorials/i-can-statements-2.
Waltman, J. Why Should Students Track Their own Progress. Retrieved 090220 at https://www.sophia.org/tutorials/i-can-statements-2.
TEPSA News, January/February 2021, Vol 78, No 1
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