Research Supporting Proficiency-Based Learning: Learning Standards

When educators talk about “proficiency-based learning,” they are referring to a variety of diverse instructional practices—many of which have been used by the world’s best schools and teachers for decades—and to organizational structures that support or facilitate the application of those practices in schools. Proficiency-based learning may take different forms from school to school—there is no universal model or approach—and educators may use some or all of the beliefs and practices of proficiency-based learning identified by the Great Schools Partnership.

On this page, we have provided a selection of statements and references that support and describe one foundational feature of proficiency-based learning systems, Learning Standards. In a few cases, we have also included additional explanation to help readers better understand the statements or the studies from which they were excerpted. The list is not intended to be either comprehensive or authoritative—our goal is merely to give school leaders and educators a brief, accessible introduction to available research.

“Clear learning goals help students learn better (Seidel, Rimmele, & Prenzel, 2005). 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 (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2004; Moss, Brookhart, & Long, 2011). This point has been demonstrated for all age groups, from young children (Higgins, Harris, & Kuehn, 1994) through high school students (Ross & Starling, 2008), and in a variety of subjects—in writing (Andrade, Du, & Mycek, 2010); mathematics (Ross, Hogaboam-Gray, & Rolheiser, 2002); and social studies (Ross & Starling, 2008). The important point here is that students should have clear goals. If the teacher is the only one who understands where learning should be headed, students are flying blind. In all the studies we just cited, students were taught the learning goals and criteria for success, and that’s what made the difference.” —Brookhart, S. M., & Moss, C. M. (2014, October). Learning targets on parade. Educational Leadership, 72(7), 28–33.

“The most effective teaching and the most meaningful student learning happen when teachers design the right learning target for today’s lesson and use it along with their students to aim for and assess understanding. Our theory grew from continuous research with educators focused on raising student achievement through formative assessment processes (e.g., Brookhart, Moss, & Long, 2009, 2010, 2011; Moss, Brookhart, & Long 2011a, 2011b, 2011c). What we discovered and continue to refine is an understanding of the central role that learning targets play in schools. Learning targets are student-friendly descriptions—via words, pictures, actions, or some combination of the three—of what you intend students to learn or accomplish in a given lesson. When shared meaningfully, they become actual targets that students can see and direct their efforts toward. They also serve as targets for the adults in the school whose responsibility it is to plan, monitor, assess, and improve the quality of learning opportunities to raise the achievement of all students.” —Brookhart, S. M., & Moss, C. M. (2012). Learning targets: Helping students aim for understanding in today’s lesson. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“Setting objectives and providing feedback work in tandem. Teachers need to identify success criteria for learning objectives so students know when they have achieved those objectives (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Similarly, feedback should be provided for tasks that are related to the learning objectives; this way, students understand the purpose of the work they are asked to do, build a coherent understanding of a content domain, and develop high levels of skill in a specific domain.” —Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“Setting objectives is the process of establishing a direction to guide learning (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). When teachers communicate objectives for student learning, students can see more easily the connections between what they are doing in class and what they are supposed to learn. They can gauge their starting point in relation to the learning objectives and determine what they need to pay attention to and where they might need help from the teacher or others. This clarity helps decrease anxiety about their ability to succeed. In addition, students build intrinsic motivation when they set personal learning objectives.” —Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“Providing specific feedback that helps students know how to improve their performance requires teachers to identify and understand the learning objectives (Stiggins, 2001). If teachers do not understand the learning objectives, it is difficult for them to provide students with information about what good performance or high-quality work looks like…. Effective feedback should also provide information about how close students come to meeting the criterion and details about what they need to do to attain the next level of performance (Shirbagi, 2007; Shute, 2008). Teachers can provide elaboration in the form of worked examples, questions, or prompts—such as ‘What’s this problem all about?’—or as information about the correct answer (Kramarski & Zeichner, 2001; Shute, 2008).” —Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“[Learning targets] convey to students the destination for the lesson—what to learn, how deeply to learn it, and exactly how to demonstrate their new learning. In our estimation (Moss & Brookhart, 2009) and that of others (Seidle, Rimmele, & Prenzel, 2005; Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, & Chappuis, 2009), the intention for the lesson is one of the most important things students should learn. Without a precise description of where they are headed, too many students are ‘flying blind’…. A shared learning target unpacks a ‘lesson-sized’ amount of learning—the precise ‘chunk’ of the particular content students are to master (Leahy, Lyon, Thompson, & Wiliam, 2005). It describes exactly how well we expect them to learn it and how we will ask them to demonstrate that learning…. Instructional objectives are about instruction, derived from content standards, written in teacher language, and used to guide teaching during a lesson or across a series of lessons. They are not designed for students but for the teacher. A shared learning target, on the other hand, frames the lesson from the students’ point of view. A shared learning target helps students grasp the lesson’s purpose—why it is crucial to learn this chunk of information, on this day, and in this way.” —Brookhart, S. M., Long, B. A., & Moss, C. M. (2011, March). Know your learning target. Educational Leadership, 68(6), 66–69.

“Students who have clear pictures of the learning target and of the criteria for success are likely to also have a sense of what they can and should do to make their work measure up to those criteria and that goal. Clear learning targets direct both teachers and students toward specific goals. Students can meet goals only if they are actually working toward them, and they can’t work toward them until they understand what they are. Once students understand where they are headed, they are more likely to feel that they can be successful, can actually reach the goal. Students’ belief that they can be successful at a particular task or assignment is called self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). Students who have self-efficacy are more likely to persist in their work and especially more likely to persist in the face of challenge (Pajares, 1996).” —Moss, C. M., & Brookhart, S. M. (2009). Advancing formative assessment in every classroom: A guide for instructional leaders. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“Although they have different labels (standards, learning results, expectations, and outcomes), every state has standards that are determined at the state level. These standards are published and all teachers, parents, and students, should be familiar with them. This is essential because the research shows that ‘it is very difficult for students to achieve a learning goal unless they understand that goal and can assess what they need to do to reach it’ (Black et al., 2003).” —O’Connor, K. (2009, January). Reforming grading practices in secondary schools. Principal’s Research Review, 4(1), 1–7.

“Arguably the most basic issue a teacher can consider is what he or she will do to establish and communicate learning goals, track student progress, and celebrate success. In effect, this design question includes three distinct but highly related elements: (1) setting and communicating learning goals, (2) tracking student progress, and (3) celebrating success. These elements have a fairly straightforward relationship. Establishing and communicating learning goals are the starting place. After all, for learning to be effective, clear targets in terms of information and skill must be established…. For example, the Lipsey and Wilson (1993) study synthesizes findings from 204 reports. Consider the average effect size of 0.55 from those 204 effect sizes. This means that in the 204 studies they examined, the average score in classes where goal setting was effectively employed was 0.55 standard deviations greater than the average score in classes where goal setting was not employed…. For the Lipsey and Wilson effect size of 0.55, the percentile gain is 21. This means that the average score in classes where goal setting was effectively employed would be 21 percentile points higher than the average score in classes where goal setting was not employed.” —Marzano, R. J., & Brown, J. L. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“Equipped with state standards that had been clarified and specified in the district’s written curriculum, teachers in the higher performing schools carefully studied, further detailed and effectively implemented those standards using tools such as curriculum maps, pacing guides, aligned instructional programs and materials, and formative benchmark assessments. Higher performing schools deeply integrated the state standards into their written curriculum, but viewed state standards as the floor for student achievement, not the target. Educators did not see those standards as a digression from the real curriculum, but as the foundation of the curriculum. With a focus on core learning skills, grade-level and vertical teams continually reviewed and revised the curriculum. That curriculum communicated high expectations for all students, not just the academically advanced.” Dolejs, C. (2006). Report on key practices and policies of consistently higher performing high schools. Washington, DC: National High School Center. (NOTE: Based on an analysis of 74 average and higher performing high schools in 10 states that identified the fundamental teaching and learning practices shared across higher performing high schools.)

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