Developing Learning Targets and Structuring Assessments

Learning Target Bullseye

After seeing multiple questions and side conversations develop on ChemEdX and Twitter as a result of a previous post, , (about the development of reassessment request forms) it has been apparent that an opportunity to extend the scope of the conversation may be worthwhile. Such questions and comments involved a variety of topics such as the retake process, Standards-Based Grading, learning targets, creating questions, and the overall structure of a test. While there are many resources available that tackle each of these topics in great detail, the goal of this post is to provide some insight on the idea of developing meaningful learning targets and how they can be used to drive the overall structure of an assessment.

Note: This post is not meant to be a research-based dissertation on learning targets and assessments. The following examples, definitions, and recommendations are the result of personal experiences with colleagues, reading research, and self-reflections throughout my transition toward a more standards-based approach over the past few years. Though the topics covered may not be novel for many chemistry teachers, the goal is to make the information easily digestible for new teachers and those who may not have been presented with explicit opportunities to really scrutinze how they identify and communicate what they want their students to learn. In other words, I wrote it with the mindset of “what do I wish I would have known about these topics when I first started?” If you are interested in gaining more of an in-depth understanding of these topics, I strongly recommend the books, articles, and online videos published by people like Thomas Guskey, Douglas Reeves, Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, Robert Marzano, and Rick Wormeli.

Characteristics of Meaningful Learning Targets

Student-friendly language

Regardless of what state you are in, we are all aware of our own state standards. However, most teachers have had the experience of reading the description of a given standard, only to feel unsatisfied with its level of ambiguity and potential interpretations. The importance of effectively communicating what we want our students to know was made very transparent for me when I saw a video of  in which he said the following1:

When a team identifies an essential standard, the first thing they do is rewrite the standard in their own words. They put it in simple, understandable words to make sure everyone on the team is laser-like clear on what it means. And they do it for them to guide their teamwork. But if it was in simple, understandble words, who could you share it with? Students and their parents! If people trained in the field can't interpret what the state wrote, what makes you think a student is going to?

Though students, parents, and teachers should be able to access and interpret the learning targets, they are primarily written for the students to reflect on, not just you. Typically, they are written as “I can” statements. Because our level of understanding is so much different than our students’, it is far too easy to write a target that you think is easily interpretable, while at the same time, remains unclear to your students. Keep them in mind.  



Improving the accuracy and consistency of evaluating student understanding is more likely to be accomplished when their work is measured against a specific learning target. Consequently, the feedback and eventual grade that you attribute to their level of understanding should come from something that is actually measurable within the learning target itself. The easiest way to do this, while still giving yourself enough freedom to ask a variety of questions, is to include certain action verbs such as: create, explain, interpret, draw, model, distinguish, calculate, etc. 

The following learning target is an example that is difficult to objectively measure and needs to be tweaked:

I can demonstrate understanding of chemical nomenclature.

As a teacher, I know what that means; but will students? Simply using a word like “understand” without providing some context as to what constitutes understanding makes it difficult for the students to know what you expect and its ambiguity opens the door for multiple interpretations among teachers. This can lead to inconsistent grading between different teachers when the same level of work is being evaluated. 

So how might we improve the above statement? Here are a few ways:

Given a chemical formula, I can write the name of covalent and ionic compounds.

Given the name, I can write the chemical formula of covalent and ionic compounds.

I can write the names and chemical formulas of covalent and ionic compounds.

I can provide evidence for, and defend, the chemical formula of an ionic compound based on my knowledge of charge and position on the periodic table.

Regardless of which of the above examples you pick, each one is sufficiently more clear than the original as to what we are expecting the student to be able to do. As a result, grading students against a learning target that is measureable becomes far easier and more consistent from teacher to teacher.


Keep Them “Effectively Ambiguous”

Since this seems to contradict what you just read, some clarification is in order. At a simple level, learning targets communicate the skills and knowledge students will demonstrate, which pertain to a specific concept. The water can become a bit murky when the concept becomes too narrowly focused or too broadly encompassing. If it is too narrow, you limit the variety and number of questions you can ask. In addition, you increase the risk of students not being able to adequately connect multiple ideas that fall within the same concept. If the concept within the learning target is too broad, it can become much more difficult to grade and remain unclear to the students as to what exactly they should be able to demonstrate.

Learning Target That is Too Narrow:

I can explain and illustrate how electromagnetic radiation is emitted from an atom and use spectra to show how to identify chemicals.

Though I can certainly come up with questions that assess this learning target, phrasing it this way limits my opportunity to ask questions about subtopics within this concept such as the electromagnetic spectrum or wavelength/frequency/energy calculations.

Learning Target That is Too Broad:

I can identify and describe different types of chemical bonds, how they are formed, and how these bonds affect the properties of chemical substances.

There is way too much going on here. What if a student can identify and describe different types of chemical bonds and even how they are formed, but can’t explain how these bonds affect the properties of the substance? Is that student going to be graded differently from the one that can connect the ideas of bonding and properties but can’t identify or sufficiently describe the formation of different bonds? Try to avoid setting yourself up for sticky situations like these since it can make the grading process very frustrating and potentially inaccurate.

The important thing to remember here is that different targets will naturally allow for different ranges of ambiguity. As long as it is clear to the students and you have identified unambiguous ways to measure understanding, then great!

Here are a few learning targets that I think are effectively ambiguous:

I can identify and explain periodic trends.

I can use Kinetic Molecular Theory to explain and model the behavior of gases.

I can use stoichiometric analysis to represent chemical change.


Show Students the Path

Since learning targets are essentially condensed statements of the knowledge and skills we want our students to learn, it is important to unpack things a bit for students. Not only will this increase transparency for students, but it requires teachers to reflect on the variety of potential pathways that lead toward understanding. In other words, if the learning target is the destination, then we have a duty to identify and communicate the necessary stepping stones that will get them there. For example, what sort of pathways of understanding come to mind for the following learning target?

I can describe the factors that affect the process of dissolution and make calculations involving the solubility of different solutes in water.

While the target appears fairly straightforward, many students may not fully recognize what specific actions would fall within this target. Because of this, we should take the time to consider and communicate such actions that can be viewed as sub-targets. Here are a few sub-targets that bring clarity to the overall learning target.

I can describe the factors that affect the process of dissolution and make calculations involving the solubility of different solutes in water.

  • Describe methods for increasing the rate of dissolution
  • Calculate the maximum solubility of a given solute
  • Calculate the minimum amount of water needed to dissolve a solute
  • Determine if a solution is saturated or not

Things to Consider When Developing Learning Targets

At first, this can seem like a daunting task.  However, I have found that the frontloading can be dramatically decreased by applying a couple proactive tasks.

Look at your old assessments

Instead of trying to develop the targets from scratch, look at your old tests and try to work backwards. Though your old tests may not be structured according to specific learning targets, it is likely that the bulk of the content has not changed. Because of this, your old tests offer an insight as to what you expected students to know and be able to do at that time. Find questions that reflect a common concept, identify some of the key subtopics within that concept, and consider the actions students used to demonstrate understanding. Taking this step was transformative for me because it made me realize how my questions disproportionally reflected certain concepts within my old tests.

Do it as a group

If you are in a department with more than one chemistry teacher, you will likely need common learning targets. While it is unlikely for there to be much disparity between each of you regarding the identification of concepts and subtopics from previous tests, it is probable that the group will disagree on how the learning target itself should be worded in simple, understandable words. Try having each member come up with the learning target in their own words and then compare with each other. Sometimes someone else will create a learning target that is worded in a way you feel does a better job distilling the main points of a concept in a more student-friendly way.  Working with others will help ensure that you are all on the same page and that the learning targets being communicated represent what your whole department views as important while taking into consideration student interpretation.

Aligning the Test to Your Learning Targets

Once I started to really reflect on what I want my students to know and I felt more competent writing learning targets, I was surprised at how much easier creating an assessment became. My tests were no longer just a smorgasbord of questions with the same concept appearing in different areas. Additionally, when it came time to create questions, all I had to do was ask myself, “what does the learning target say students should be able to do?” and that provided the clarity I needed to more adequately direct my focus toward only what mattered.

For example, say I needed to come up with some questions that allow me to assess the following learning target:

I can interpret, calculate, and model reactions that involve limiting reactants.

  • Given the mass or moles of each reactant, identify the limiting reactant.
  • Explain how a limiting reactant actually limits how much product can be produced.
  • Model a reaction that has been limited using a particle diagram.

From this, I immediately know my focus is on measuring how well the student understands the concept of limiting reactants. While it does not specify exactly what they need to interpret or calculate, the sub-targets provide enough clarification to easily start making questions. Based on the measurable actions mentioned (interpret, calculate, model), it is clear that demonstrating an understanding of this topic will need to happen in a variety of ways.

I might start off by asking myself, “what evidence would show me a basic understanding—something I would expect students to know at a minimum?

Maybe a question that involves minimal calculations and shows that they can at least identify the limiting reactant.

If I am not satisfied with one concrete example to show basic understanding, I might add another question that requires many of the same skills as before, but with an additional layer. This will help me differentiate minimal understanding from one that is clearly developing while I am grading the tests.

Eventually, I will want to target more of a conceptual understanding, but still involve those basic skills from before to help me identify wrong answers as being the result of a lack of basic understanding or conceptual understanding.

One of the most common pushbacks I encounter from those who have never aligned their assessments with learning targets is that, due to the natural progression of concepts in chemistry, questions asked will be too narrow and we will not be able to put students in a position to connect multiple ideas. The only time this sort of argument holds any weight is when the learning target itself is too narrowly focused. It is important to identify this concern as a problem with how the learning target is worded, rather than a problem with aligning an assessment to learning targets. I think the problem above demonstrates how a question can be asked that hits the learning target, while still involving connections to other ideas or skills that support it.

When it comes to the overall structure of the test, the idea is fairly simple. The test is organized into sections that correspond to each learning target. For example, it could look something like this:

Learning Target 1.1: I can…




Learning Target 1.2: I can…




Learning Target 1.3: I can…




While organizing assessments in this manner seems to be most commonly associated with standards-based grading, it is completely independent of the grading system you are in. I experienced this myself throughout the past year while teaching General Chemistry and Honors Chemistry. Our Gen Chem class was the subject of a year-long pilot program where standards-based grading was fully implemented while our Honors Chem class stuck with the traditional grading system that had already been in place (points-based). Though the methods that were used to provide feedback and assign grades differed, the learning targets for each class provided the foundation for clearly communicating what we wanted students to be able to do and each test was still organized according to these targets.

If there is one thing I have learned after doing this for a few years, it is the realization that it is OK (maybe even necessary) for your learning targets to change from year to year. Sometimes you write a target and then realize after the assessment that you wish it was worded slightly different or maybe it could be combined with a different target. Having these moments of hindsight are representative of a healthy reflective mindset and should be valued. As a result, I make subtle tweaks here and there and I feel more confident about my learning targets each year. Additionally, constantly trying to improve our learning targets and how we assess them each year has spawned wonderful conversations (sometimes arguments) with my colleagues that have helped bring clarity to the content and avoid the stagnant nature that is often the result of thinking “we have it all figured out.”

I am always looking to refine my own learning targets. More recently, I have been interested in how my targets might differ from my General Chem to my Honors Chem classes. If you would like to share your own learning targets or offer advice, share your valued experience! If you have questions or just need clarification, feel free to comment below or send me a tweet @meachteach. In the supporting information, I have included one of our tests from the past year in Gen Chem as an example to see how an assessment might be structured when aligned with learning targets.


1Mike Mattos on how to get insanely clear about learning outcomes and learning objectives.