Students do better in school when they know what they can expect to learn in an upcoming lesson or unit (that is, a series of lessons).  In today’s schools, learning targets and advance organizers are the most commonly used ways of telling students about what they can expect to learn. Learning targets are specific, short-term goals. In other words they are goals that can be accomplished within a short amount of time. Advance organizers are verbal or graphic descriptions that preview the main concepts or skills that a lesson or series of lessons will teach.

The idea behind learning targets is that, in order to learn effectively, students need to know what to “aim at” as they begin a new lesson.  At the beginning of the lesson or unit, the teacher posts the learning target for that lesson or unit where students can see it. Then the teacher discusses each learning target with the students, sometimes also reminding them of how the learning target connects to knowledge or skills they already possess. During the lesson or set of lessons, the students and teacher often refer to the learning target to help stay focused on meeting it.

Learning targets are sometimes called “I can statements” because they use the phrase “I can” to refer to the learner’s performance.  In the primary grades, a learning target for science might be “I can name and describe the eight planets in our solar system.” Learning targets tell students what they’re expected to know or be able to do by the end of the lesson or unit.

An “advance organizer” is a diagram, list of bullet points, chart, outline, or narrative that a teacher uses at the beginning of a lesson to provide a context for the lesson by previewing the main concepts or skills to be taught.  Whatever form it takes, an advance organizer provides a framework that introduces the new ideas or skills to be learned.  The advance organizer sets up a framework in three ways:

  • It connects the new ideas or skills to ideas or skills the students have already learned.
  • It briefly explains new ideas or skills.
  • It identifies important relationships between the new ideas or skills.

Whether the advance organizer is in narrative form (as in this overview), in graphic form (as in the illustration below), or in an outline form, it helps students understand, remember, and apply the new ideas or skills the lesson itself presents. The more complex and unfamiliar the new ideas, the more important the advance organizer is to student learning. In addition, students to whom the new ideas are least familiar are probably most in need of an advance organizer to help make the new ideas more meaningful to them. Advance organizers can vary a great deal in terms of content and form, and graphic organizers, in particular, help students whose visual and spatial learning strategies are stronger than their verbal learning strategies.

Learning targets and advance organizers orient students to the lesson or unit ahead.  Learning targets, however, operate as goals for the students whereas advance organizers prepare students to understand the new content and skills more readily as well as to remember and apply them better than they would have without the preview the organizer provides.

Illustration: What an Advance Organizer Presents

instruction unit4 overview