Research-Based Publications That Foster Educator Expertise

Libby Garst

Libby Garst, MSEd, enjoyed a successful business career for more than 15 years before turning to teaching. She spent nearly 15 years in education as a middle school classroom teacher and an elementary instructional math coach. Today she brings together both of her backgrounds to offer teachers, schools, and districts a truly unique perspective. Ms. Garst earned her master’s degree at University of Virginia.

Resources by Libby Garst

Interviews by Libby Garst

Q&A With Libby Garst

Creating & Using Learning Targets & Performance Scales

Author and educational instructor Libby Garst had a successful career in the business world when she discovered her son had learning difficulties. In seeking ways to help her son, Garst discovered a love for education. She earned her Master of Education and left the corporate world to become a middle school teacher and elementary instructional math coach. With 15 years of experience in education, Garst has written numerous resources on research-based instructional strategies and facilitated online courses for the Art & Science of Teaching graduate program for the National Institute for Professional Practice. Here, co-author Garst discusses her new book, Creating & Using Learning Targets & Performance Goals: How Teachers Make Better Instructional Decisions, and why teachers should be utilizing learning targets and performance scales.

What are the three types of learning targets?

They are learning goal targets, foundational targets, and cognitively complex targets. The learning goal targets identify what the students need to know and be able to do to demonstrate mastery of a standard. A lot of the standards include multiple levels of cognitive complexity. Learning goal targets are derived from the highest level of taxonomy indicated by the standards and often require a series of lessons to accomplish.

Foundational targets are those learning targets necessary to build to or provide the underpinning for the learning goal targets. Think of them as the prerequisites for the learning goal targets. Teachers should ask themselves, “What does it take for the student to reach the skills required for the learning goal target?” These targets include any necessary academic vocabulary and basic processes students should understand and demonstrate to be able to reach the learning goal targets.

The cognitively complex targets are created to help students expand and deepen their knowledge and skills. They are targets that stretch beyond the standard that require students to think about the content in more complex ways. They ask students to use their knowledge and skills to extend their thinking and make applications beyond what is taught in the classroom.

What are some of the benefits of learning targets beyond the classroom?

We set targets and goals with everything we do. From short-term goals like creating to-do lists to longer-term goals like losing weight or getting the job of our dreams. Whatever it might be, setting an objective or a target helps us choose where we want to go. Learning targets guide us and create the focus necessary to accomplish anything we put our minds to.

How are learning targets tied into performance scales?

A performance scale is a series of learning targets that demonstrates a progression of learning. Each individual target is a stepping-stone or a milepost on a learning journey that must be achieved in order to reach the final destination or mastery of the standard. The targets themselves create the scale.

How do performance scales help with the mastery of the standard?

It comes back to that progression. Whenever anyone is learning a new skill, you have to do it in small steps. When you’re learning to play tennis, you work on individual skills―your backhand, your forehand, and your serve. It’s not until everything comes together that you’re able to play the game. The targets in a scale progress to help students reach the learning goal target and demonstrate mastery of the standard or group of standards.

Are learning targets and performance scales something an teacher utilizes on her own or should it involve community collaboration?

Individual teachers can utilize learning targets and scales in their classrooms. When used as a routine, they provide direction for both the teacher and students. Teachers can utilize the targets and scales to teach, plan, and assess. Students can use the targets and scales to self-assess and self-regulate their learning. Performance scales can be a powerful classroom tool, but creating them independently is a daunting task. Collaboration with peers is always recommended when creating and using learning targets and performance scales. Remember what Ken Blanchard said: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” It is more powerful and often more efficient to create learning targets and performances scales with other teachers.

Is it important for students to use the language of the targets?

Establishing a common language is important. It helps prevent miscommunication and confusion about the goal and its desired outcome. Having the students use the language that is embedded in the scales and the targets is essential. A lot of teachers may think that’s not doable, especially with young children, but it is. You can always add pictures to help the students understand some of the more challenging words. If you substitute a word in the standards for one the student may already understand, you could change the intent and not teach to the rigor of the standard. So we have to be careful about changing the language when creating learning targets and be diligent about asking the students to use the language required by the standard.

At what age or stage of development is it appropriate for students to start using learning targets?

I say as early as pre-school. It might be a picture target versus the words, but that’s okay. It just needs to be explained so the students understand what they need to do or learn. Learning targets help students know where they are in their learning or how they are progressing. It’s a way for them to gauge and take ownership of their learning. It helps them understand early that their job as a student is more than simply showing up to school every day.  

How can learning targets be used to support ESE, ELL, and students who lack motivation for schooling?

It provides the guidance that some students need in these types of situations. I taught eighth grade pre-algebra. Many of my students lacked motivation for various reasons. Every day I’d put the target on the board. I made the assumption that because it was on the board they understood what it was and why it mattered. One day I asked them to think about the target and the activity they had just completed and talk about how they were related. They just stared at each other. I had to walk them through it. I started doing that more until it became a routine, and I began to see a difference. They started to lean in and ask more questions about how the lessons tied to the target written on the board. They started taking ownership of their learning. It was interesting to see the change. They found purpose as to why they were in the classroom.  

Learning targets seem to focus on academic achievement. Can there also be targets that focus on behavioral and interpersonal components within the classroom?

Yes, performance scales can be used for behavioral and interpersonal skills as well. The desired skill would be the learning goal target, and the foundational targets would include the skills the student would need to master to reach the learning goal target. For example, a student needing help with self-regulation behaviors might have a learning goal target that requires him or her to demonstrate self-regulation strategies to deal with upsetting emotions. Foundational targets might include things like recognizing upsetting emotions such as anger and disappointment and recalling different strategies for managing them like deep breathing and visualization. You can create a scale with these or other possible targets so the student can track his or her progress and use the scale as a tool to help instill the desired behavior.


The concepts and ideas of Creating & Using Learning Targets & Performance Scales are excellent. I’ve never heard of scales but I’m looking forward to using them in my classroom in the future.
Beth Maloney, 2014 Arizona Teacher of the Year
Creating & Using Learning Targets & Performance Scales does an excellent job of focusing on the real purpose for learning targets and scales. This was a very poorly implemented first step in many district evaluation programs, and the content in this book completely debunks those erroneous first directions.
Robin L. Oliveri, 2014 Leon County Schools (Florida) Teacher of the Year
I felt the ideas in Creating & Using Learning Targets & Performance Scales were applicable across all disciplines K–12. The overall idea, helping students become aware of their own learning, is larger than grade level or academic area.
Aaron Sitze, 2013 Oregon Teacher of the Year finalist

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