Learning Progression


The term learning progression refers to the purposeful sequencing of teaching and learning expectations across multiple developmental stages, ages, or grade levels. The term is most commonly used in reference to learning standards—concise, clearly articulated descriptions of what students should know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education.

Learning progressions are typically categorized and organized by subject area, such as mathematics or science, and they map out a specific sequence of knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn as they progress through their education. There are two main characteristics of learning progressions: (1) the standards described at each level are intended to address the specific learning needs and abilities of students at a particular stage of their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development, and (2) the standards reflect clearly articulated sequences—i.e., the learning expectations for each grade level build upon previous expectations while preparing students for more challenging concepts and more sophisticated coursework at the next level. The basic idea is to make sure that students are learning age-appropriate material (knowledge and skills that are neither too advanced nor too rudimentary), and that teachers are sequencing learning effectively and avoiding the inadvertent repetition of material that was taught in earlier grades.

It should also be noted that learning progressions may be more accelerated or less accelerated relative to one another. For example, in some European and Asian countries students learn algebra during their middle-school years, while it has been more common in the United States for students to begin taking algebra courses in high school. Depending on the sequencing of standards and progressions, students may be taught concepts sooner or later in their education. For a related discussion, see acceleration.

When learning progressions are organized by grade level or grade span, they may be called grade-level expectations or grade-level standards. It should be noted, however, that while learning progressions are typically organized by grade level in the United States, some educators advocate that students should be able to progress through their education at a faster or slower pace based on their ability to learn the required material and demonstrate proficiency—i.e., academic programming should not necessarily be organized into age-determined grade level, but should based on each student’s distinct learning needs. For example, if a fourteen-year-old student, who would customarily be enrolled in ninth grade, is capable of doing eleventh-grade math, the student should be held to the appropriate learning standards and taught at an “eleventh-grade level” regardless of his or her age. For a related discussion, see proficiency-based learning.

The following reading standards—taken from the Common Core State Standards—provide an example of how learning progressions work and how each standard builds on the previous one, increasing in complexity as students advance from one level to the next:

Kindergarten: Identify the front cover, back cover, and title page of a book.

First Grade: Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate facts or information in a text.

Second Grade: Know and use various text features (e.g., captions, bold print, subheadings, glossaries, indexes, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text efficiently.

Third Grade: Use text features and search tools (e.g., key words, sidebars, hyperlinks) to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.

Fourth Grade: Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.

Fifth Grade: Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.

Grades 6–8: Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to an understanding of the topic.

Grades 9–10: Analyze the structure of the relationships among concepts in the text, including relationships among key terms (e.g., force, friction, reaction force, energy).

Grades 11–12: Analyze how the text structures information or ideas into categories or hierarchies, demonstrating understanding of the information or ideas.


Educators may debate whether learning progressions are actually learning progressions, or whether they are merely content progressions or teaching progressions. This somewhat technical debate occurs mostly among educators, researchers, and education experts. The basic idea is that standards, by necessity, are created by adults with only a limited understanding of how students actually learn and develop cognitively at specific ages. Consequently, grade-level standards and learning progressions reflect “best-guess” ideas about how content or teaching should be sequenced across grades, but they do not necessarily reflect the ways in which students actually learn new knowledge and acquire new skills. For this reason, they may not facilitate learning in the most effective ways, or they may inadvertently promote and reinforce less-effective teaching strategies.

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