Wednesday / May 29

How to Create Leveled Success Criteria

Three years ago Ross School set off on a mission to ensure every student (or as we call them learners) developed their assessment capabilities. Put simply, the school wanted all learners to independently answer three fundamental questions:

  • Where am I going in my learning?
  • Where am I now in my learning?, and
  • What’s next to improve my learning?

These questions went to the heart of what learners were thinking about during class. Often learners were found focusing on tasks to complete, such as the number of problems they needed to do. Other times, learners were focused on the context of the unit. For example, learners were thinking about sea otters when they were really suppose to be thinking about the movement of energy in a food chain.

We knew that if learners were not focused on the actual learning they would be unable to develop long term memories of the core ideas, and wouldn’t be able to apply those ideas in different situations. The first step for us as a team was to ensure learners were clear on teacher expectations.

Teacher Clarity

Teacher clarity may be best defined as a learner’s ability to know the outcomes of learning (ie learning intention) and the expectations (i.e. success criteria) for meeting the outcomes of learning.

Teacher clarity as an influence has been found to be linked to almost two years’ growth in one year’s time (Hattie, 2009). Teacher clarity is actually a misnomer in that it’s not really about how clear teachers are on outcomes for learning, but that students are clear. Moreover, clarity of outcomes is an essential ingredient to other variables that have a powerful influence on student learning including:

  • Feedback
  • Assessment capabilities
  • Scaffolding
  • Seeking help from peers, and
  • Classroom discussion

Numerous books have been written on the importance of learning intentions and success criteria for learners (Clarke, 2014). Often these books show success criteria as one set list for students to meet.

The challenge with this approach is that it assumes students can inherently recognize the complexity of each success criterion independently. More often than not, students are unfamiliar with the material to be learned and are therefore unable to decipher the right sequence of success criteria to be met over time.

Leveled Success Criteria

At Ross School, we use a simple taxonomy that articulates complexity for students. The taxonomy, a modified version of Biggs and Collins’s SOLO taxonomy, is based on three levels of learning and articulates a student’s ability to understand, relate, and apply ideas or skills. The taxonomy may be best represented in the following way:

  • Surface: I know one or more ideas/skills but am unable to relate or apply them.
  • Deep: I can connect ideas/skills together but am unable to apply them.
  • Transfer: I can apply ideas/skills in different situations.

To assist students in understanding complexity of learning and to support them in tracking their own learning needs and progress over time, articulating reference for expectations across surface, deep, and transfer has been immensely helpful for our learners.

Leveled Success Criteria Development Process

The process for designing leveled success criteria is a simple six-step process:

Step 1: Craft learning intentions in student-friendly language

Take the outcomes of your syllabus and convert them into “I will” statements for learners.  Ensure that the verb that is used after “I will” requires deep or transfer expectations (see the list below for potential verbs).

E.g.  I will apply multiplication of fractions.

Step 2: Craft leveled success criteria at surface, deep, and transfer learning.

Once you established your learning intention you will need to create success criteria to ensure students know what to know and be able to do to meet your expectations. When writing out your expectations, you want to use verbs at each level of learning (ie surface, deep, and transfer).  The following table lists a series of verbs that may be helpful in this process.

Here is an example of success criteria in a 3rd grade math classroom:

Step 3: Refine learning intentions by ensuring the verbs are aligned to deep or transfer and refine success criteria by removing tasks, activities, and contexts.

Once you have sketched your learning intentions and leveled success criteria it’s a good idea to review your work and ensure you have alignment of verbs and expectations at each level of the success criteria and that your learning intention is written at the highest level of learning you expect.

In addition, you will want to ensure that your success criteria doesn’t include assignments or products in the descriptors.  Assignments, products, and activities are all ways in which students demonstrate their learning but more often that not they are not a learning intention nor success criteria.  For example, if students are learning to write a balanced argument, then we want to include the criteria that is necessary in such an argument including forming an opinion in the closing, relating two opinions, backing up opinions by experts, and using high percentages.  We would not want to include in the success criteria “write a paper”.  The paper is a task in which students will demonstrate the success criteria.  The success criteria is what we want them to focus on during class and when writing a paper.

Step 4: Create a driving question that presents students a rationale for meeting transfer expectations

This may be viewed as an optional step but is actual critical in presenting the learning intention as important for learning.  Driving questions positioning the learning intention as a question rather than a statement and often show students one or more contexts (or situations) in which they, the students, will engage in to meet the learning intention. Driving questions are usually presented to students at the beginning of a unit to drive the learning.

How do we apply multiplication of fractions [when converting units in chemistry to demonstrate the relationships between quantities]?

Step 5: Receive feedback from peers to ensure alignment of learning intentions and success criteria.

Before building other parts of your unit (such as building tasks and activities for kids), ask colleagues to review your work and look for the following:

  • Learning intentions: Does the learning intention require deep and transfer learning?
  • Success criteria: Do the success criteria align to surface, deep, and transfer? Are the success criteria devoid of contexts and tasks?
  • Driving Question: Does the driving question align to the learning intention? Does it require surface, deep, and transfer learning to answer?

Leveled success criteria ensure that students are aware of complexity and that all students are meeting complex expectations. This simply strategy may assist in developing your learners ability to become their own teachers. This is what is happening with our learners at Ross School and leveled success criteria as been a key aspect of our success.

Written by

Michael McDowell, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Ross School District. Most recently, he served as the Associate Superintendent of Instructional and Personnel Services at the Tamalpais Union High School District. During his tenure, the Tamalpais Union High School District was recognized by the Marzano Research Laboratories as one of the top highly reliable organizations in the United States, and schools within the district received recognitions by the US News and World Report, and honored with California Distinguished Schools accolades.


Prior to his role as a central office administrator, Dr. McDowell served as the Principal of North Tahoe High School, a California Distinguished School. Prior to administration, Dr. McDowell was a leadership and instructional coach for the New Tech Network supporting educators in designing, implementing, and enhancing innovative schools across the country. Before engaging in the nonprofit sector, Dr. McDowell created and implemented an environmental science and biology program at Napa New Technology High School, infusing 1:1 technology, innovative teaching and assessment, and leveraging student voice in the classroom. Additionally, Dr. McDowell, taught middle school math and science in Pacifica, CA. Dr.


McDowell is a national presenter, speaking on instruction, learning, leadership and innovation. He has provided professional development services to large school districts, State Departments of Education, and higher education. In addition, he was a former National Faculty member for the Buck Institute of Education and a key thought leader in the inception of their leadership work in scaling innovation in instructional methodologies. His expertise in design and implementation is complimented by his scholarly approach to leadership, learning, and instruction.


He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Redlands and an Ed.D. from the University of La Verne. He received departmental honors for his work in Environmental Science and was awarded the Tom Fine Creative Leadership Award for his doctoral work at the University of La Verne. He has also completed certification programs through Harvard University, the California Association of School Business Officials, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, and Cognition Education. He holds both a California single subject teaching credential and an administrative credential.

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