Why We Should use SLOs to Support Student Learning Recovery

Student learning objectives (SLOs) are intended to be a teacher-centered reflection process about supporting student learning over the course of a year or throughout the duration of a course. This is a particularly important process as we work to recover from and persist through continued learning disruptions as a result of the pandemic. Many teachers are beginning this year still exhausted from the last, and SLOs can feel like a bureaucratic tool rather than a formative framework the teacher self-creates as a powerful tool to support teaching and learning. How can we reframe this thinking?

Growth by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

SLOs should naturally be a part of what teachers already do. Many schools collect baseline information about what students know and can do at the beginning of their learning for the year. Baseline information arrives in the form of large-scale assessment results, interim assessments, pre-tests targeting the SLO learning goal, or optimally multiple measures that give a holistic view about student achievement as well as contextual features of the student as learner (i.e., IEP, LEP or 504 considerations). The purpose of the baseline data is to help a teacher discover what a student can do at the beginning of the year. Building a profile of where the student is currently is the starting point for next instructional steps that are optimized for the student.

SLOs are about personalizing instruction to students

Investigate this second grade teacher’s interim reading data.

Figure 1: Reading Scores from a Grade 2 Classroom  

Students along a test scale from a scale score of 150 to 200.

While we seldom think about score interpretations of data in this way, and assessments do not often give us information in this context, the reality is that students come to us in very different stages of mastery in the standards. Some students need to master critical standards from earlier grades. Other students are likely ready to learn standards from the next adjacent grade. The grade in which a student is enrolled, at times, tells us more about what a teacher is expected to teach than what students are ready to learn. State standards are a framework regarding what students should master each year to be on track to be college and career ready. However, as state assessment results demonstrate, not all students exit each grade in the proficient and advanced achievement level. Therefore, we can expect that students enter our classroom in different stages of learning, and as a result, they have different needs. Students who are represented in red with labels denoting they are likely functioning in first grade standards need more intensive opportunities to master precursor standards in first grade in addition to mastering second grade standards. Students in green likely need curriculum compacting. A single unitary pace of instruction will not serve these students equally well if our goal is to grow each and every student in our classroom.  SLOs can help us slow down and think about a plan for differentiation.

Visualizing Differentiation at a Mile High Level

As we reflect upon what it means to increase student knowledge and skills by differentiating to support students, the teacher must visualize what differentiation will look like. Students who are reading like a typical beginning Grade 1 student may need instruction which focuses on sound-symbol relationships, decoding, and reading fluency to support reading comprehension. At this stage, of reading development, we focus reading comprehension probes on the student’s ability to identify “textually explicit information” in the form of “definitions, facts, or details.” (the quotes show where I am pulling from and adapting from the NAEP 2019 Reading Framework). These types of probes align to the Common Core Standard “Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.” Students who are reading like an advanced Grade 3 student need instructional tasks that ask them to make “complex inferences”. Complex inferences are inferences that require using evidence from multiple sections throughout a single text in the early grades. For these advanced readers, it is imperative they be moved beyond responding to literal, surface level comprehension questions that ask them to identify textually explicit information, make simple inferences based on supporting details within a single paragraph, or recount a story. These students already have this ability with grade appropriate text.

What does this mean for the four students in the middle of the classroom distribution? These are the students for whom a typical instructional pace supports student growth. Instruction geared to the average expectations will meet these students’ needs. But for the other nine students the typical instructional pace will be too difficult or too easy, and they will not have their learning optimized unless time is set aside to personally support each child in their current stage of reading development. Thus the teacher may create the following SLO learning goal: Grade 2 students will read grade appropriate texts with fluency and accuracy, and they will demonstrate comprehension by describing the main character’s perspective regarding the story problem using details from across different sections of the text.

SLO Learning Goals are Big Ideas

Almost all SLO models use baseline data as an input into the development of the SLO Learning Goal, which is called the SLO Objective Statement in South Carolina. The National Center for Educational Assessment (NCIEA, 2013) defined the SLO learning goal as “a description of the enduring understandings that students will have at the end of the course or the grade based upon the intended standards and curriculum.” Marion and Buckley (2016) posited that the SLO Learning Goal should be based upon high leverage knowledge and skills, often referred to as a “big idea” of the discipline, and this big idea should integrate several key content standards. Riccomini et al., (2009) wrote that big ideas should form the conceptual foundation for instruction. They are teacher prioritized concepts students should understand because they form the point of departure for students to connect current and future learning with previous learning. For example, Riccomini et al. noted that fractions are precursor skills to ratio and proportional reasoning, but these concepts are often taught discretely so that students do not see and use these connections in their reasoning as they solve real world multistep problems. The big ideas that we frame for a SLO learning goal can also be considered a single grade-level competency under a competency-based framework.

SLO Learning Goal Criteria

As teachers create their SLO Learning Goal, you might compare it to the following criteria. The SLO Learning goal

  • is measurable; it includes explicit, action verbs.
  • requires that students engage in deep demonstrations of their thinking in the content area.
  • contains the key content competencies a student should demonstrate by the end of the year.
  • connects and integrates multiple critical standards that are central to the discipline. You have evidence to support this claim documented.
  • will elicit student reasoning at or above the cognitive demand levels denoted by single state standards in isolation.
  • grain size is appropriate to the amount of instructional time you have with the students.

Analyzing the SLO Learning Goal

Content Competencies

The SLO Learning Goal can be broken down further into measureable content competencies. Reading with fluency and accuracy is typically accomplished through assessments that measure how many words a student reads per minute and what percent of words in a minute were accurate. However, a critical component of accuracy is whether or not the student has the foundational skills to decode unfamiliar words. While fluency needs to be at a rate in which a student can remember and restate what was read, the accuracy component likely needs to be the more heavily weighted instructional decision maker of the two, with careful attention to the student’s decoding ability. The next content competency denoted in the SLO is that the students will demonstrate comprehension by describing a main character’s perspective regarding the story problem.

Measureable Verbs and Cognitive Complexity

The verb describe is measureable by allowing students to verbally provide the information to the teacher or through writing. Because writing skills are slower to develop than reading and because the measurement goal is comprehension of what was read, the goal is to allow either mode of showing comprehension. That is, if the child is not yet able to demonstrate the complexity of his thoughts in writing, equal credit is afforded to sharing of thought complexity verbally.

With either mode of demonstration (verbal or written), the SLO goal is intended to elicit evidence that the student can support her answer using details from the text. In a cognitive framework developed by Norm Webb, this would be a Depth of Knowledge 3 or 4 goal (depending upon the text type), as it engages the student not only in drawing a conclusion but also supporting the conclusion with multiple pieces of evidence from the text.


The SLO Learning Goal also provides context that helps us visualize what a full culmination of the learning goal looks like. The context provided is that the student is expected to use details (evidence) from across different sections of the text. This is context because it describes the conditions under which a child can provide a character’s point of view. This denotes the most advanced state of demonstrating the learning goal. An easier and arguably proficient presentation for a Grade 2 student of this same skill would be for a child to provide a character’s perspective on how to solve a problem using a detail or details from within a single section of text.

The SLO Learning Goal requires that the students engage in a deep, authentic demonstration of their thinking. However, the context of when the student can show this skill allows you to see where the child is in their development of reading comprehension.  As a teacher considers how to teach and measure this SLO Learning Goal, there must be a consideration of which texts elicit the necessary target evidence both for instruction and assessment.  What Grade 2 appropriate texts show a character’s thinking or point of view on how to solve a problem across the text? The Magic Tree House series immediately comes to mind.  The SLO Learning Goal connects and integrates multiple critical standards that are central to the discipline, will elicit student reasoning at or above the cognitive demand levels denoted by single state standards in isolation, and represents enduring understandings that will support students in the next grade.

There are multiple paths forward to developing SLO Learning Goals based on the same baseline data. The purpose of the SLO is to assist teachers in planning ahead in recognizing the need for and developing a general plan for differentiating instruction for students in different stages of learning. This is especially critical in supporting students through on-going learning disruptions. This blog should not be taken to mean that a teacher can or should never teach all students at the same time. What we are doing in the SLO process is carefully creating a scaffolding plan which is explicitly described in this Grade 2 Common Core Standard, “By the end of the year,[students will]  read and comprehend literature, including stories and poetry, in the grades 2-3 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

 Let’s stop thinking of SLOs as a bureaucratic tool. Let’s think of SLOs as they are intended to be:  a formative framework to support teaching and learning.

If you would like a SLO Learning Goal Planner click here.

If you would like to see a different SLO Learning Goal for Grade 2 students, a fifteen minute overview with teacher-created examples is shown here: https://vimeo.com/151169470.   






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