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May 1, 2022

Show and Tell: A Video Column / Co-Constructing Success Criteria

Students' participation in defining success strengthens learning.
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Instructional Strategies
May 2022 Fisher Fry thumbnail
It was a forehead-smacking moment, when something obvious suddenly comes into view. "Of course, it matters!" That was our reaction when we first began exploring the evidence on success criteria.
Establishing a shared understanding with students of what success in a lesson and a unit looks like has the potential to considerably accelerate learning. A simple but profound truth lies at the heart of this: When a person can see a target well, they're much more likely to meet that target successfully and confidently.
Done well, success criteria illuminate the intention or purpose for learning. If a learning intention is a statement of learning to come ("Today, we are learning about momentum"), success criteria signal to students how they know they have learned it ("I can describe what happens when two forces act on an object in opposing directions"). With an effect size (a statistical measure that aggregates many studies and quantifies the magnitude of the difference a particular strategy makes) of 0.88, success criteria hold the promise of increasing learning.
But there are nuances to using success criteria well. Just writing an I can statement students should aspire to on the board won't make the "magic" happen. And just distributing a rubric for a learning unit isn't somehow going to result in deeper learning.
Instead, students must actively use the success criteria to gauge their own learning. For instance, when students respond to an exit ticket asking, "Show you can describe what happens when two forces act on an object in opposing directions," learning is strengthened. Students are reflecting on their learning and supplying evidence in the form of work products that show that learning.
Another idea is to turn any rubric into a single-point rubric. Put the column with descriptors representing proficiency on a specific learning target in the center, with a blank column on either side. Students can use this graphic as a self-assessment tool before submitting an assignment, noting in one blank column evidence that they've achieved proficiency on certain descriptors tied to the target and listing in the other column areas where they need help.
With such practices, students can monitor their own progress, analyzing their own work before you do. This is key, because student ownership of learning—a powerful motivator—requires that students monitor their own progress, notice when they haven't been successful, and seek feedback.
If you've already begun using success criteria to promote self-assessment with your students, you've probably noticed increased motivation—and that students are developing some positive dispositions related to their roles in their own learning. Once students become familiar with how success criteria operate in your classroom, they'll be ready for the next step: co-constructing success criteria with you.

Why Co-Construct Criteria?

In a word, motivation. Students who see what they're learning as relevant are more likely to be motivated. In learning, relevancy means people both see a context for their learning and have opportunities to apply what they are mastering—which is where designing the right kind of learning task comes in. Learning tasks are a crucial way kids can apply what they learn—and when these tasks feel more meaningful, they're more likely to get completed. Students who have input on determining what tasks represent successful completion (success criteria) get to interrogate the purpose of the task in advance—which can help infuse the tasks with meaning. In addition, co-developing tasks related to success criteria further increases students' confidence that they'll meet those expectations.
Start with assignments that have concrete visual examples of "success criteria," like writing tasks or math problems. Many teachers save exemplars of favorite projects. Looking over these with students might be a good starting point to introduce tasks that would be part of a similar project and to ask students to jointly develop criteria for what "success" on such tasks would look like to them. In the video accompanying this column, high school teacher Shayna Davenport co-constructs success criteria with students.

Simply writing an 'I can' statement students aspire to on the board won't make the magic happen.

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How This Might Work

Whether you're new to co-construction with students or looking to refresh existing processes, here are some tips for ensuring it goes well.
  • Make sure you are aware of the expectations inherent in the standards or curriculum. This helps you formulate clarifying and probing questions as learners analyze samples to form success criteria.
  • Select class work samples, previously made anchor charts, or targeted collections of learners' individual work that will make mastery of the learning intention concrete.
  • Introduce the learning intention and the task of co-constructing what success looks like (you might phrase success criteria as "How you will know you've met the learning target?").
  • In small groups, give learners copies of the work samples, anchor charts, or portfolios of relevant work to look over and identify strengths and weaknesses. You might label these samples as "exceeds expectations," "meets expectations," etc.—or leave them unlabeled if you think your learners are ready to evaluate the quality themselves. Allow time for discourse and debate.
  • As learners begin to identify essential characteristics of each sample, help them document and organize their thinking.
  • Have groups/pairs share the criteria they selected, look for commonalities across the class, and negotiate together which criteria will be included in the final success criteria.
  • Once success criteria have been determined, choose an approach for how you'll together encapsulate and phrase those criteria—such as through an I can statement or specific descriptors of what represents "proficiency" on a single-point rubric. Display the co-constructed I can statements (or whatever form you use) so the criteria are visible as students get started with the learning experience.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to use the co-constructed success criteria to analyze their own work.

Toward True Ownership

The most important reason for having students co-construct some of your success criteria is that it contributes to an essential disposition for lifelong learning—being able to choose one's own criteria for success, one's own goals in learning, both in and out of school. We want young people to be able to self-reflect, to make meaning of their time and effort toward their learning—vital steps on the path to real ownership of learning.
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End Notes

1 Gonzalez, J. (2015, February 4). Meet the single point rubric. Cult of Pedagogy.

2 Almarode, J., Fisher, D., Thunder, K., & Frey, N. (2021). The success criteria playbook: A hands-on guide to making learning visible and measurable. Corwin.

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