Why Share Learning Intentions with Students?

Hitting the TargetBased on a close reading of Chapter 3 of Dylan Wiliam’s book Embedded Formative Assessment (2011)

The research evidence for the benefits of sharing learning intentions and success criteria is powerful and persuasive.

Wiliam provides an overview of an extensive body of research evidence that points to increased learning for all students, when learning intentions and success criteria are clear, shared and understood.  In particular, the greatest gain in learning is observed in those students who are commonly seen as low achieving.  In a collaborative environment this closing of the achievement gap is a positive outcome.

Wiliam identifies that the cause of the achievement gap is that “often, what is wanted is not made clear, and this puts some students at considerable advantage because they already know.”  These are the students who are able to “work with unresolved ambiguities about what they are doing, while those students seen as lower achieving were struggling because they were trying to do something much more difficult.” (Gray and Tall 1994).  Those students who are able to intuit the implied learning intention(s) are at a significant advantage over those who cannot – hence the decreased achievement gap when learning intentions are made explicit.  This suggests that many students who carry the label “low achieving” or “underachieving” may simply be “low intuiting” and this has social-emotional as well as achievement impacts.

Wiliam does not address the social-emotional impact of sharing learning intentions and success criteria but I would suggest that it reduces both teachers’ stress and students’ stress.  Wiliam shares Mary Alice White’s 1971 “The view from the student’s desk”:

The analogy that might make the student’s view more comprehensible to adults is to imagine oneself on a ship sailing across an unknown sea, to an unknown destination.  An adult would be desperate to know where he is going.  But a child only knows he is going to school… The chart is neither available nor understandable to him… Very quickly, the daily life on board the ship becomes all important… The daily chores, the demands, the inspections become the reality, not the voyage, nor the destination. (p.340)

In my classrooms I have observed many students carry a hidden anxiety that manifests itself in many different ways including over-achievement driven by insecurity, disengaged compliance, and disruptive avoidance behaviour to name a few.  I have observed sharing clear and explicit learning intentions having a significant impact in reducing the behaviours listed and improved focus for student learning.

Imagine now the teacher holding the rudder of White’s ship but without a chart in hand and without a clear destination in mind.  Would they not also find the voyage an anxious one?  Would they not be desperate to know where they are going?  It is my personal experience, and my observation of colleagues, that teachers who invest time and energy in clarifying and understanding learning intentions also reap a significant personal benefit in reduced anxiety and increased confidence as a result of their new-found clarity.

Works Dylan Wiliam Cites and Further Reading

Moss, C., Brookhart, S. & Long, B. (2011), Knowing Your Learning Target. Educational Leadership 68(6), p 66(4)

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box. Phi Delta Kappan, 8(2), p 139(9)

Clarke, S. (2005).  Formative assessment in the secondary classroom.  London: Holder & Stoughton.

White, M. A. (1971). The view from the student’s desk.  In M. L. Silberman (Ed.), The experience of schooling (p. 340 New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Gray, E. M., & Tall, D. O. (1994). Duality, ambiguity and flexibility: A “proceptual” view of simple arithmetic. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 25(2),116-140.

Recommended Assessment Reading


About J Martens

Educator living in Vancouver and working in SD37 Delta. Supporting Numeracy while learning how formative assessment, literacy, inquiry, and technology serve to improve learning and increase engagement (for teachers & students).
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