Tuesday / April 23

Success Criteria: An Essential (and often underutilized) Component of Teacher Clarity 

adhesive note papers with question mark and w questions hanging on the rope

Before you read any farther, I want you to consider the following.  How would your students, whether face-to-face, hybrid, or at a distance, respond to these three questions? 

  1. What am I learning? 
  2. Why am I learning this? 
  3. How will I know that I have learned it? 

We have come to recognize our students’ answers to these three questions as indicators of clarity in our teaching and our students’ learning.  Not only do we, as teachers, need to have clear answers to these three questions every day, but so do our students. When our learners have clear answers, their learning accelerates (Visible Learning MetaX, 2021).   

We establish clarity in learning through purposeful, intentional, and deliberate organization, explanations, examples and guided practice, and assessments of student learning (Fendick, 1990). This begins with us clearly communicating the learning intentions of each learning experience and then establishing the criteria for success. However, clarity for learning is not a one-way exercise where we simply communicate the learning intentions and success criteria and, voila, learning accelerates. 

I am reminded of the most famous line from the movie, Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner: “If you build it, they will come.”  While a catchy phrase, and certainly a memorable line from Field of Dreams, that is not how clarity in learning works.  Simply communicating the learning intentions and establishing criteria for success does not automatically translate into our learners knowing the what, why, and how of the learning.  In other words, if we build learning intentions and success criteria, clarity in learning will not necessarily come to your classroom.   

Again, clarity for learning is not a one-way exercise, but bi-directional.  Not only do we have to communicate the learning intentions and success criteria, but our learners have to engage with these two components of the learning experience and leverage them into clarity about the what, why, and how of their learning.  This is why these three questions can tell us a lot about how are learners are leveraging the learning intentions and success criteria.  Returning to the opening reflective task of this post, how would your students respond to those three questions?  What we have discovered over the past several years is that learners often respond to the first two questions, the what and why, but seem to struggle to articulate how they would know they had learned it beyond “when my teacher says so”, “when I get them all correct”, or “when the class ends”.   

And this brings us to the focus of this Corwin Connect post and The Success Criteria Playbook: A Hands-On Guide to Making Learning Visible and Measurable (Almarode, Fisher, Thunder, & Frey, 2021).  Why is the third question, the question about success, such a challenge in our classrooms?  My colleagues and I have amassed classroom walk-through data that indicates approximately 80% of learners offer high-quality responses to the first question, approximately 70% articulate the second question, and 30% of learners surveyed provide clear responses to the third question.  The difficulty our learners have recognizing and articulating criteria for success may be a reflection of our struggle with developing and using success criteria in our classroom.  This struggle differentially affects learners with certain background or demographic characteristics. For example, English language learners may struggle to describe how they know if they have learned the information because of how we create and implement success criteria. How we create and communicate success criteria may inadvertently narrow the access and opportunity for learners with a disability to demonstrate their learning progress.  If success criteria should provide both the teacher and the learners with a clear understanding of what success looks like, the evidence suggests we are falling short with all learners. Success criteria have an average effect size of 0.88 (Visible Learning MetaX, 2020), meaning that when used successfully, it doubles the rate of learning. Falling short on providing learners with a clear understanding of what success looks like eliminates that possibility, which therefore limits the access and opportunity for all of our learners. 

Up to this point, our perspective and use of success criteria has been far too narrow and thus leads to the very challenges highlighted here. Success criteria are more than I can statements (Almarode, Fisher, Thunder, & Frey, 2021). 

Relying solely on I can statements as our way of communicating how students will know if they are learning may have inadvertently reduced the visibility of the learning in our classrooms for both us and, more importantly, our learners.  While I can statements are one approach to articulating what success looks like, these statements are not the only way. We can enhance the visibility of learning with other ways of making learning visible to everyone engaged in the learning experience.  These additional approaches to creating and communicating success criteria or how learners will know when they have learned include: 

  • We can statements 
  • Single-Point Rubrics 
  • Analytic/Holistic Rubrics 
  • Teacher Modeling 
  • Exemplars 
  • Co-Constructing Success Criteria with Learners 

While reading this list, you likely thought of examples from your own teaching where you have taken your I can statements and enhanced the visibility, and therefore the measurability, of learning in your classroom.  That’s the point, the big idea in this post!  We must expand our perspective on success criteria and utilize multiple approaches to enhance the I can statements in a particular learning experience.   

Expanding and enhancing how we create and communicate success criteria comes with the task of deciding when might it be best to use exemplars alongside I can statements. How about I can versus We can? Is there a way to decide which success criteria are best implemented with analytic or holistic rubrics? The answer is that there is no one correct answer. Providing a prescriptive, fool-proof method that leads to a quick and easy way to choose the “best” approach is simply not possible. For example: 

  • If learners are using multiple representations to make sense of a contextualized problem in mathematics, teacher modeling or exemplars may be most effective in communicating success criteria. I can statements may not provide enough clarity around what success looks like in this learning experience.  
  • Similarly, if learners are to apply their thinking about momentum and forces by designing a vehicle that would protect a raw egg in an impact collision, I can statements may not be as effective as a rubric in supporting transfer learning.  
  • The same reasoning applies to using text features to make meaning or compare two historical accounts of the same event. Instead of one right answer, the decision about how to implement success criteria requires us to closely consider the learning intentions and then leverage our professional knowledge and judgment around the following reflective questions (Almarode, Fisher, Thunder, & Frey, 2021): 

The following are questions that can help guide your decision making:  

  1. Do my success criteria truly represent the learning intentions for my learners? 
  2. Did I pick the best option for implementing success criteria based on the type of learning expected of my students? 
  3. Am I using success criteria to support my students taking ownership of their learning? 

Expanding our perspective on what success criteria are and how we create and communicate them in our classrooms will have a noticeable effect on how our learners engage in the learning.  In the end, learning will be more visible and measurable, paving the way for equity in access and opportunity to learning.  Our learners will be more likely to be active participants in their learning.   


Almarode, J., Fisher, D., Thunder, K., & Frey, N. (2021). The success criteria playbook. A handson guide to making learning visible and measurable. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 

Fendick, F. (1990). The correlation between teacher clarity of communication and student achievement gain: A meta-analysis (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. 

Visible Learning MetaX. (2021, January). Retrieved from  

Written by

Dr. John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career teaching mathematics and science in Augusta County to a wide range of students. Since then, he has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on the application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments. He has worked with hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers. In addition to his time in PreK – 12 schools and classrooms he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education and the Director of the Content Teaching Academy. At James Madison University, he works with pre service teachers and actively pursues his research interests including the science of learning, the design and measurement of classroom environments that promote student engagement and learning. John and his colleagues have presented their work to the United States Congress, the United States Department of Education as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and over a dozen books on effective teaching and learning in today’s schools and classrooms. However, what really sustains John and is his greatest accomplishment is his family. John lives in Waynsboro, Virginia with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator, their two children, Tessa and Jackson, and Labrador retrievers, Angel, Forest, and Bella. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.

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