Do your students really know what to do to improve?

We tell students their subject targets, they write them down dutifully, but how do we know they’ve really understood them? Also, are the systems in place to support retention of these targets over time? Why do so many targets crop up in the following test again? And more importantly, what should we do about it?

I’m known for my preoccupation with target posters, target work and anything that specifically links to students developing a strong understanding of the specific strategies we identify that they need to work on to raise their attainment. For me, target work is absolutely critical, and I’ve sought to up the ante around this area in my department, and wanted to also investigate targets awareness on a whole school level. I recently therefore completed a short research study of 30 students across year groups and departments, looking at their understanding of targets subject teachers set them.

The Survey

The Survey Results:

In Qn 1, Students were asked to ‘go blind’ (without looking in their books) and recall what their targets for improvement were in 3 subjects they had that day.

60% were able to adequately recall ‘real’* targets for 1 or more of their subjects.

Qn 2 asked Students to look in their books and identify their targets for improvement

56% were able to identify these targets in their books

Qn 3 and 4 asked Students to estimate their understanding of these targets and ability to explain them to a friend, providing a mark/10 in Qn 3.

8/10 was the average mark, suggesting many students claimed to understand their targets and could explain them.

Qn 5 asked students whether they could explain how these targets would directly lead to improvement.

Most said ‘Yes’ but didn’t take the time to explain how. (Bad Qn on my part!)

Qn 6 asked students to estimate how often they are invited to work on their targets in class.

The most popular answer was ‘monthly’.

The Final Question asked whether teachers referred back to progress made against targets over time.

A range of answers cropped up here from ‘Yes, he talks us through’ to ‘No, rarely’.

*Other comments on the surveys included the following written down as targets which I dismissed as too vague and not specific enough to directly be correlated to improvement: ‘Better presentation’, ‘Revise more’ , ‘Put up my hand more’, ‘Be confident’, ‘Prepare more’ , ‘Be more organized’ , ‘Work quicker’ 


The results were slightly better than I thought, and it is to our school’s credit that over half of the students surveyed were able to recall their targets. However, some of the data above, and the sheer number of comments like the ones I am about to share, lead me to think we must still do more in this area: ‘I couldn’t find targets’, ‘I don’t really get set targets’ , ‘Normally I forget targets from the previous piece of work -we just usually move on to the next topic’.

Recommended action points for improving our students’ successful engagement with targets

  • Metacognition work all the way! Don’t settle for cursory responses to your targets. These are vital for improving their next piece, and need to be engaged with properly one at a time. The two examples below show an attempt at an explanation of a target (albeit an incorrect one), and a good improvement example but with no metacognition work considering what exactly has been improved.

Here are three better examples which offer gold star stuff like definitions, the ‘before & after’, where they’ve improved, and an awareness of what they’ve improved:




  • Create sufficient time for them– dedicate at least 1 lesson, and/or a homework to working on targets.Can this time be built into your Faculty’s systems – is it the expectation after every assessed piece that this work takes place effectively?
  • Recap these targets regularly in lessons – You might use starters, cold calling, or a quiz to keep these targets at the forefront of their work in your lessons.
  • Encourage students to link back explicitly to these targets, in a new piece of work, via the ‘Margin Targets reminder’. This helps maintain focus.


  • Encourage students to explain to you, before they start writing, how the piece they’re about to write is going to be better than before, with direct reference to their targets.


  • Ensure you as the teacher check back on progress made – Have their old targets been met in the new assessment? This should be relatively easy to do.


Thanks for reading. I’d be intrigued by any exciting targets metacognition work you are undertaking. Here’s a final summary for students sitting down with new targets:



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