Learning Intentions: A Guide to Building More Measurable Lesson Plans

Building effective lesson plans is an essential aspect of being a teacher. Yet with so many standards and criteria to meet, it can be hard to create lesson plans that satisfy state requirements and also keep students involved in what they’re learning and why. Using learning intentions and success criteria can ensure that your lesson plans are properly aligned both with standards and with meaningful objectives. 

Here’s what classroom teachers and lesson planning experts have to say about building effective, intriguing lesson plans that include descriptive criteria for student success.

Why Learning Intentions Matter

Lesson plans are often focused on what a learning activity will entail and how students will be graded on it. Many teachers get so excited about the activity itself that they forget to include a learning intention, which is what students actually need to learn from the activity. A learning intention should extend beyond the activity itself, says instructional coach Peg Grafwallner.

“It focuses on the goal of the learning—the thing we want our students to know and do. The learning intention helps students stay focused and involved.”

Learning intentions determine what a student needs to learn in order for the activity to be successful. So instead of creating an activity without an intention (and measure for success), Grafwallner suggests a three-step model:

  • Create the learning intention (the knowledge or concept you want your students to gain). 
  • Use that knowledge goal to determine the success criteria.
  • Create an activity and open-ended discussion questions that foster learning and promote deep understanding of the subject.

It’s important to differentiate learning intentions from standards. According to the Georgia Department of Education, standards are “statements for teachers that identify what students should know and be able to do at a given point in time.” While learning intentions are based on standards and should be aligned with them, they emphasize knowledge, skills or concepts. They should also connect to and build on the learning intentions gleaned from related lessons to help students continue deepening their understanding of knowledge on a certain subject. 

A learning intention should explicitly describe what students will know, understand and be able to do as a result of teaching, says educator Anita L. Archer, Ph.D. She adds that learning intentions are focused on what the students are learning (not the activity) are written in student-friendly language and revisited throughout the lesson. Learning intentions that achieve the SMART criteria, are specific, measurable and actionable are the most successful.

Defining your learning intention explicitly to the class ensures that they know why they’re learning the lesson. It gives purpose and meaning to the task so that it doesn’t feel aimless, say San Diego State University professors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. “Without a clear learning destination in mind, lessons wander, and students become confused and frustrated.”

Learning intentions

What Learning Intentions Look Like

There are many creative ways to define and explain learning intentions to students. Although these will vary by subject and grade level, looking at successful examples can inspire your own learning intentions. 

Teacher Meghan Everette suggests planning multiple learning intentions at the same time to help see the arc of learning over a longer period. This ensures that students are meeting standards while also learning everything you intend them to in a sequential order that makes sense. She adds that it’s important to discuss the objective with students before the lesson starts. Ask them what they already know, and what they’re confused about. Asking students to talk about their learning ensures that they understand what they’re expected to learn.

Teacher Genia Connell explains how a concept called math talk helps foster meaningful discussion around math problems to reinforce learning intentions. For example, she started by asking and modeling open-ended questions. These include inquiries such as “What makes you say that?” and “What’s another way to do that?” to get students thinking about questions in a new way. Then, using student suggestions, Connell created a math talk sheet with a list of questions helping students think, discuss and work on projects in a new way that fostered learning intentions. This was posted in an area that everyone could see every day.

Third grade teacher Marine Freibrun adds that she creates learning objectives based on “I can” statements that focus on future success levels. For example, a grammar lesson objective may be: “I can use correct grammar so my reader can read my writing.” 

Criteria for success can also include future statements of what will be learned, such as: “My response explains the main idea and has evidence from the text that supports the main idea.” There can also be multiple “I can” statements involved in a lesson, like “I can identify the numerator and denominator” and “I can use inequality symbols to compare fractions.”

The way you use verbs can also play a role in the effectiveness of a learning objective, explains school district superintendent Michael McDowell, Ed.D. Specifically, he suggests referring to a list of verbs to use at each level of learning (surface, deep, transfer). 

Surface learning words, which involve one or multiple concepts, include identify, recall, summarize and estimate. Deep learning, which connects concepts to skills, includes words such as organize, argue, verify, infer and predict. The application of concepts and ideas is the transfer stage of learning, and that includes verbs such as formulate, generalize, initiate and hypothesize.

Learning intentions

Learning Intention Examples

Looking at how other teachers and schools craft learning objectives can serve as a model for your own. For example, first grade teacher Brian Kovalovsky started a new math lesson by discussing the learning target. The learning intention was “to describe basic shapes and compare them to one another.” 

After this discussion, he asked students how they would know when the intention, or target, was reached. A 6-year old said she’d be able to explain the difference between a square and a rectangle. These successful lesson objectives have helped students be more engaged in what they learn, and more strategic about how they get there.

More examples of learning intentions come from Oregon’s Formative Assessment Insights. They explain that learning intentions should be accompanied by success criteria, which is a more detailed description of what a student should be able to do in order to achieve that learning goal. For example, a learning intention might be “Understand how the structure of DNA relates to its function.” Meanwhile, the success criteria might read, “define the terms structure and function; explain why the base pair rule means DNA forms complementary strands and a double helix.”

It’s important that your learning objectives include measurable verbs, says J. Shabatura at the University of Arkansas. While many teachers use the word “understand,” a learning objective such as “understand immigration policy” isn’t measurable, since students can demonstrate understanding in different ways. Instead, this learning objective could be specified to say “describe the history of American immigration policy.”

Images by: JozefPolk/©123RF.com, Dmitrii Shironosov/©123RF.com, Wavebreak Media Ltd/©123RF.com

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