Better learning intentions


“Imagine oneself on a ship sailing across an unknown sea, to an unknown destination……very quickly, the daily life on board ship becomes all important…..the daily chores, the demands, the inspections become the reality, not the voyage, nor the destination.”

(Mary Alice White’s view from the students’ desk from Dylan Wiliam’s: Embedded Formative Assessment)

Why focus on learning intentions?

A ‘no-brainer’ right?  Learning intentions when used well help both us and our students to see the destination and chart the voyage.  Great learning intentions can provide challenge, foster grit and determination, develop higher order thinking through good modelling and scaffolding and encourage us all to aim for excellence.

under the microscope

But how many of us have really put our learning intentions under the microscope lately to analyse their quality and effectiveness?  How much of our time and effort is spent framing them or developing success criteria that promotes opportunities for all students to achieve excellence?  As Wiliam says:

“this is why good teaching is so extraordinarily difficult….it is hard…..because it has to be designed backwards”

A brief history of learning intentions according to……me

I started teaching in 1995 nearly 20 years ago.  I have thought long and hard about this and can still remember vividly the first time I began sharing learning objectives.  In 2002 the Government launched the Key Stage 3 National Strategy for Science.  At the time I was Head of KS3 Science which inevitably resulted in my working with our Local Authority Consultant as part of this initiative.  It was she who first pointed out to me that our department should really be sharing objectives with our students.  There wasn’t any great discussion about the reasons as I recall – simply that our lessons would be better if we shared them.  So off we all went “bolting-on” objectives to our existing lessons – job done!

It wasn’t until not long after this, as a Head of Department, when working with another LA Consultant on “AfL unit 3 – Developing objective led lessons” that the penny began to finally drop and I began thinking more carefully about objectives, using them to plan lessons and series of lessons rather than creating them post-script.  Through this publication I was introduced to the work of Bloom and his taxonomy of learning and it was around this time that I first read Black and Wiliam’s groundbreaking work on formative assessment “Inside the Black Box” and subsequent publications by the King’s College London Assessment Reform Group.

From there, through my subsequent involvement with the National 8 Schools AfL project in 2005/6 via a brief stint as an LA consultant myself, I got a lot more opportunity to reflect on their importance and their use became central to my teaching.  By this time I had been teaching for 10 years.  Was I late to the party or had it yet to really start?

late to the party

Since then the way I’ve chosen to frame my learning intentions have seen more changes than Lady Gaga’s wardrobe and it has been interesting to look back as far as 2005, thanks to various memory sticks I have miraculously managed not to lose.  Unfortunately I can find no physical record of any I wrote prior to this on that revolutionary piece of kit that replaced the chalkboard – the rolling whiteboard!

Here are a few of my own examples from the last 9 years to give you a flavour of what I mean:

Reactivity of metals_lesson obs 2008 WALT 2007 WALT WILF 2007 learning intentions grid simpsons learning intentions SOLO learning intentions 2 SOLO learning intentions 1 WAGOLL1b WAGOLL 2

Opportunity knocks

This year, in order to further develop teaching & learning across our school we have chosen to focus our efforts on two areas:

1)      Better learning intentions

2)      Better feedback & response

The two main reasons for this were:

1)      Our evaluation of teaching and learning during the Summer Term identified both of these key features of better assessment as pivotal differences between ‘the best’ teaching & learning and ‘the rest’.

2)      Their known high influence on the achievement of students.

It also presented us with a great opportunity to look again at why learning intentions are important and how we can make them even better.  A simple act of deliberate practice for us all.

opportunity knocks

Where to start?

We began the year by developing a shared understanding of what we meant by objectives, outcomes and success criteria.  We did this by collecting and sharing exemplar learning intentions from different departments via an e-portfolio before following this up with discussions in departments during the course of the Autumn Term.  Towards the end of term departments shared their best examples of learning intentions and success criteria for inclusion in our e-portfolio.

What did this tell us?

  • That the routine sharing of quality learning intentions is becoming more consistent, especially the use of the terms objective, outcomes, success criteria & WAGOLL (What A Good One Looks Like)
  • That there is still some variation between the ‘best’ and the ‘rest’ in terms of

–          length and complexity

–          descriptions of tasks rather than learning as a result of them

–          degree of challenge

–          sharing of quality success criteria / WAGOLL

So what now?

For us it’s time to get out the microscope and to begin to examine in detail ‘what makes learning intentions tick’ in order to analyse how we can make ours even better.

watch ticks

Important features of learning intentions

In his book “Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning” John Hattie identifies a number of important features of learning intentions from his extensive analysis of the research, i.e they should be:

  • Clear to students
  • Lead to a shared understanding of learning goals
  • Transparent – show how tasks relate to learning intentions
  • Inclusive of all students
  • Appropriately Challenging
  • Referred to – to help students chart their “journey”
  • Build in mechanisms for knowing that learning has been achieved

The 5 essential components

Hattie goes on to outline five essential components related to learning intentions and success criteria as follows:

  • Challenge

Related to prior knowledge and learning

Relative to a student’s current performance and understanding

Not unattainable – students must be able to see a pathway to challenging goals

Create positive tension –error is welcomed and encouraged

  • Commitment

Greater commitment from students = greater performance

More powerful when related to challenging tasks

  • Confidence

Supported by scaffolding along the learning journey

Helps build resilience amongst students to tackle challenging goals

  • High expectations

Support the development of students having high, appropriately challenging expectations of themselves

The most powerful influence on enhancing achievement (d=1.44)

  • Conceptual understanding

Move understanding from the surface level to deep and conceptual levels

The importance of language

As Dylan Wiliam points out, there is no shortage of advice for teachers on how to construct learning intentions and success criteria, although he does go on to encourage us to think about our use of language when framing them.  Using student-friendly language might help to engage students initially, however at some point students will still have to become familiar with key terms, phrases and language that define our subject disciplines.  “A sense of audience” can be simplified and broken down initially, however we still want our students to know what is meant by the term.

The role of context

Shirley Clarke advocates separating the learning intention from the context in order to achieve a greater “degree of transfer” of learning to other areas.  Too much detail can be seen as counterproductive – the clearer you are about what you want, the more likely you are to get it, but the less likely it is to mean anything!

She uses this example based on banana production:

“To understand the impact of banana production on banana producers”

-can assess the students on what they know.

“To understand the impact of production on producers in the developing world” (using banana production as the context for learning)

-allows us to assess students on their ability to transfer their learning to e.g. sugar production.

Further exemplification of this from Clarke can be found below.


Making the non-observable → observable

Bloom’s taxonomy will be familiar to many of us who have used it when planning our lessons.  Of his 3 domains of learning, it is the cognitive domain we usually use when framing our learning intentions.

As you will have seen from the examples I shared above, in the past I have used (and advocated the use of) Bloom’s taxonomy, however, I was interested to discover recently that the taxonomy was developed initially from a proposal by a committee of college examiners who collated curriculum objectives from their own institutions and sorted them, rather than being based on research of student learning.

Bloom & Krathwohl’s original work identified a number of cognitive levels we function at, from the most basic “knowledge” to the more sophisticated “evaluation”.

Bloom & Revised Bloom

In 2001, the taxonomy was revised and the nouns replaced with verbs, such as “remember”…”understand“…etc. and at first glance the sophistication appears to have been switched at the higher levels of cognitive function, with “evaluation” and “synthesis” changing order.

Despite often being represented as a pyramid or a set of increasing steps, it is possible for students to operate at a number of levels at the same time.  It might therefore be better to model the taxonomy as follows:

Modelling Blooms

The empirical evidence for the switch seems to be a mystery, although research has since shown that students remember more when they have learned to handle a topic at the higher levels of the taxonomy.

Returning to Hattie’s important features that learning intentions should be clear, transparent and provide us with a way of ascertaining whether learning has been achieved, how easy is it to observe whether a student “understands”?  More helpful verbs are needed to help students understand how to demonstrate their mastery at a particular level and to make the “non-observable → “observable”.  We usually frame learning intentions using these “observable verbs”.

Making non observable observable

One of the criticisms of Bloom’s however, is very evident in the table above – where you can see how the same verb can be used across multiple cognitive dimensions.  “Identify” highlighted in yellow is a good example of this.  Furthermore, when searching for the taxonomy you will find variations in the way each of the verbs are used, which can be off-putting for teachers and confusing for students.

Hattie also highlights the importance of getting the balance right between surface, deep and conceptual learning – either in the short term or across a series of lessons.  He advocates the SOLO taxonomy as a powerful model for understanding these three levels, which I started using myself last year.  Unlike Bloom’s SOLO is a theory of teaching and learning based on research of how students learn, rather than a theory of knowledge.  Many of us are already familiar with the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) levels devised by Biggs & Collis to describe increasingly complex levels of thinking that can be observed.  If you aren’t already familiar with the SOLO taxonomy, our Head of Science Julie Ryder has written a great ‘Introduction to SOLO’ which is accessible here and has also blogged about her personal learning journey with SOLO available here.

SOLO levels

Through constructive alignment, a deliberate alliance is then made between the learning activities we plan and the learning outcomes we expect.  Constructive alignment is a conscious effort to provide students with clearly specified goals, well designed and appropriate learning activities and well designed assessment criteria to enable quality feedback.

It helps us to:

  • “Unpack” a particular objective
  • Align learning goals, activities and assessment criteria
  • Scaffold learning intentions & success criteria
  • Ensure that outcomes match objectives

constructive alignment 1

Put simply, constructive alignment requires our perceptions of assessment to match with those of our students.  Again, you can see below how verb use is central to this process.

constructive alignment 2

Here is an example of how verbs are used in the SOLO taxonomy to support constructive alignment.  Notice that unlike Bloom’s, there is consistent verb use at each cognitive level.

SOLO taxonomy & constructive alignment

The case for routine sharing of success criteria

Success criteria are crucial in helping to develop a shared understanding of what “excellence” looks like.  They enable us and our students to hold a shared concept of quality as well as enabling continuous ‘quality control’ of ‘products’ during production.

Ensuring that all students know what quality work looks like has a profound impact on achievement gaps.  Wiliam outlines the research of White & Frederiksen in illustrating the power of students understanding what they are meant to be doing as follows.

success criteria research

Here the reflective assessment group were introduced to the 9 assessment criteria that would be used to evaluate their work.  Students were asked to assess their own performance against the criteria as part of an ongoing process.  Peers also gave feedback using the criteria.

The control group on the other hand discussed their likes and dislikes of the topic they were studying once per week.   Both groups had similar prior achievement in literacy and numeracy.  Both groups studied the same science modules.

As you can see, the gains for the group exposed to success criteria are obvious.  Notice the benefits for lower achievers are even greater.

Developing quality success criteria

Developing quality success criteria means challenging students to develop quality rather than just completing tasks.

The two examples from Hattie below illustrate this difference well.

Hattie success criteria example

When thinking and subsequently writing about this I kept finding myself drawing comparisons to fellow blogger Andy Tharby’s ‘sentence escalator’ idea.  To paraphrase him “great success criteria are never finished”.  The more we focus on ‘escalating’ the success criteria, the closer we get to achieving excellence.

Choice of rubric

A rubric is basically an assessment tool that contains the assessment or marking criteria.

Task-specific rubrics include all the criteria for a particular task (like the example from Hattie shared previously) whereas generic rubrics contain non-specific guidance.  When we use task-specific rubrics with students one of the advantages is that they know exactly what to include, however, in doing so we could limit the transferability of learning to new areas referred to earlier.  For this reason task-specific rubrics work well for summative assessment.  The fact that a new rubric has to be constructed for each task also supports the case for the use of generic rubrics on a day to day basis.

SOLO rubrics

Unlike Bloom’s, SOLO verbs can be used to ask a question at one level of cognitive complexity while at the same time providing an opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning at multiple levels of the taxonomy.  For me it helps to think about SOLO verbs being able to be used in 3D as opposed to Bloom’s 2D use.

In SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools – Planning for differentiation, Hook & Mills show how SOLO assessment rubrics can be used to achieve this.  In the case shown below, you can see how when asked to “describe” – a verb used at the multistructural SOLO level – students can still demonstrate their learning at all levels of the SOLO taxonomy.

SOLO rubric


Co-construction is simply the process of ‘building together’.  By developing success criteria with students we increase the likelihood of them taking ownership of the criteria and applying them in the context of their own work.  By allowing students to help create rubrics, we help them to construct understanding for themselves.

Beyond rubrics – models of excellence

As it has done for countless others, the work of Ron Berger has transformed the way I think about and approach my own work, first and foremost as a teacher, but also as a school leader.  In his book “An Ethic of Excellence” Berger outlines “work of excellence” and argues that lists and rubrics are important, but aren’t enough in their own right, as they don’t leave a picture…a vision…an inspiration.  He urges us to admire models, to find inspiration in them and to figure out together what makes the work strong.  Rather than viewing this as simply copying what already exists, Berger refers to this as “tribute work” – borrowing from the best and building on it.  In doing so we create a vision of the goal measured against the best.

The use of student work has been shown to be a powerful mechanism for securing engagement with the success criteria and supporting student understanding of them.  Rather than talking in the abstract about what might make a piece of work good Berger encourages us to critique real examples.  Students tend to be better at spotting weakness in work produced by others and this could be as simple as asking students to rank and rate examples of work produced previously by other students in terms of quality, giving reasons for their choices.

In his book, Wiliam also shares a good example of how an MFL teacher supports her students to understand what a good French accent sounds like.  The teacher organised students into groups, in which each member of the group read the same passage of French aloud after which the group decided which member had the best accent.  The best French accent from each group was then heard followed by a teacher-led, whole class discussion to decide the strengths and weaknesses of each accent.

But why stop there?  As Berger points out, why not critique the work of real writers, scientists, artists…etc?

One final thought…

What better way to support the development of a culture of excellence within our own school than to “begin at the beginning” by focussing ourselves not just on producing “better learning intentions”…but producing learning intentions that are truly “excellent”.



12 thoughts on “Better learning intentions

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  2. ExecutiveHT

    Really enjoyed reading this. There is a lot for people to think about and act on around the issue of Teacher Clarity. I find SOLO much more useful than Bloom’s Taxonomy for structuring the learning as the cognitive processes weren’t really that useful. However I do still refer to Bloom’s knowledge dimensions which are helpful. Post chimes with one I wrote “When Bloom Met SOLO”. Keep blogging 🙂

  3. Janene Maloney

    Thanks for your well-written post. So many gems and I enjoyed reading every word! It gave me so much to consider when reflecting on my own practice.

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  5. mrbenney

    I haven’t read this in a while but have gone back to it because of work I’m doing in my school. This is without question one of the most thoughtful, articulate and downright excellent blog around. Reading it again has made me reflect on my interchangeable use of outcomes and success criteria and whether this is in my students’ interests. Very timely, thanks Dan. I’m saving to pocket for regular “dip in” opportunities.

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  9. Neil Cottiss - Assistant Head Teacher Monkseaton Middle School

    Cheers Dan. Once again, I find myself finding articles way behind the times – however it is very timely for my school. Very interesting references to some oldies but goodies for framing and sharing objectives. Will use this myself to focus on clarity of objectives and outcomes and also as a source for reference with colleagues.
    BemontTeach blog is becoming a first stop for all my teaching and learning needs. Cheers Dan, keep it up.

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