Saturday / April 13

What’s so Important About Learning Intentions and Success Criteria? 

The effect size for success criteria in John Hattie’s 250+ influences on learning is now 0.88, after the latest meta-analysis was added to the data.  With 0.4 being the mean, it looks as if success criteria are rather important…. 

First, imagine you are given a task which you know will be judged, but you’re not sure what the finished product should look like or how the teacher will judge you – actually my experience with my first college assignment! It was only when I received a 5-word comment that I began to see one of the criteria for success: ‘You haven’t discussed the issues’. Ah, so that’s the most important thing! I had written a chronological account –  no issues discussed. I should have responded, as should every student: ”It would have helped to have known that in the first place!“  

Now imagine, once I know the learning intention, I have also been engaged in a seminar in which we analyzed, from last year’s students, two excellent, different assignments as well as a poor example. We pooled the successful features as the success criteria for our own assignments. Not only do I now have criteria, I have also seen it exemplified in real contexts.   

When you do this valuable work with your students, you provide a map as well as the tools for the journey.  

Answers to Some Common Questions 

These are the questions I most often hear – along with high-level answers: 

  1. How can we make the sharing of learning intentions and success criteria something that truly helps our students to engage and progress, without feeling that we’re wasting precious lesson time? By co-constructing success criteria with students via analysis of an excellent product or comparing good with bad and so on, time is invested, enabling them to internalize and understand their meaning.  
  2. Do students need a learning intention and success criteria for every lesson? Knowledge learning intentions have no success criteria but some form of reference to key facts to make it have equal status to the skill. 
  3. Do learning intentions and success criteria have to be written in their books? Have the learning intentions written on the interactive white board in full but create short abbreviations as titles which they write in their books so they can get on with the learning! 
  4. How many success criteria should there be each time? Skill learning intentions break down into process success criteria and help students know what to do or what to include to achieve the learning intention.  Closed skills have compulsory criteria whereas open skills, such as fiction writing have optional, toolkit criteria. The number of success criteria depends on how many are needed to achieve the skill! A skill is best decontextualized for its generic features, so that it can be used every time that skill is required, regardless of the context. 
  5. Can’t I just give the success criteria to students or do we have to spend time co-constructing them? Success criteria are most helpful to students if they inform them about the process rather than just the end point (e.g. the steps to go through for a new math skill rather than just showing that they’ve demonstrated it). Keep them up on display during the lesson. 

What Learning Intentions and Success Criteria Look Like 

Now, let’s look at what this all looks like in an example lesson…  

Learning intentions are either factual knowledge or procedural knowledge (e.g., to know that…. or to know how to….) which, for ease of reference, I am still calling knowledge and skills.  Skills need success criteria to give the steps or ingredients whereas knowledge just needs some form of reference to the facts. Consider the following example of a lesson:  

This particular lesson is about imparting knowledge – maybe watching a history YouTube clip, discussing the events together, going through some Power point slides, and giving each student a “knowledge organizer” (one sheet of key facts for retrieval and reference). We would have a knowledge learning intention– We are learning about the events leading up to the First World War” — but no success criteria, because for this lesson the students do not have to apply their knowledge via a skill.  

For the next lesson we still have the same knowledge learning intention, but now I include a skill with which students can apply it: We are learning to write a newspaper article.” The context for the specific assignment will be “the day that war breaks out”, but first we need to decide the generic features of any newspaper article before we apply our knowledge. 

Students and teacher co-construct the success criteria for this transferable skill. I hand out and project copies of two different newspaper articles, not about the First World War but some other context; again, the goal is to determine features of a successful newspaper article. First we read the selections through, then I ask the class to look at both with their learning partner and decide, in 30 seconds, one feature or ingredient they see in either article.  I ask random pairs to give me one feature, and I write these up as they are generated. I’m expecting items such as:  

  • A heading which hooks the reader (Dog rescues drowning child) 
  • A sub-heading (Owner reveals other rescues) 
  • The author’s name 
  • Summary of the story in the first paragraph (lead) 
  • Photographs 
  • A final reflection 

(I sometimes put in brackets examples from the sources to make them easier to remember). 

These are commonly called process success criteria because they detail either what should be included or what steps should be taken to achieve the learning intention. 

Every time we have this skill learning intention (writing a newspaper article) I will bring up the co-constructed success criteria, which makes it a powerful tool. There are several strategies for co-constructing to make the process efficient and worthwhile, such as comparing good with poor, demonstrating the steps, and eavesdropping as pairs discuss the possible criteria.  

Whenever we analyze pieces of prose fiction writing in different genres, such as suspense writing or an adventure story, we co-construct the success criteria or features seen in those pieces which will create a toolkit for students to draw from; in other words, these are, not compulsory but could be helpful.   

Returning to the lesson example, the next phase would be to look at two or three good but different examples of last year’s students’ newspaper articles about this topic (we review different examples to avoid a single style being copied).  This time I ask the students to decide which bits they like the best – which sentences have the greatest impact on the reader and how has the author achieved this? what technique have they used? Now students are starting to get a nose for quality and might even ”magpie” or steal some of the words or phrases seen in these pieces. That is okay because it’s how writers develop their craft.   

I need to make sure that students not only format the newspaper article and use effective language, but also have the appropriate knowledge with which to apply this skill. I remind them of their knowledge organizers, we discuss what happened in the last lesson, and they discuss in pairs their ideas for their article.  I put up some bullet points of key features of the beginning of the First World War alongside the skill process success criteria. They’re ready to start! 

Co-constructing success criteria is worth every moment spent, because students internalize the criteria, having analyzed and seen them in real examples, and they develop a concept of what excellence looks like.  Teachers and students can also use success criteria as a framework for feedback and improvement.  

Let’s make sure no student is ever left wondering, as I was in my first year of college, what they’re supposed to be learning, how on earth they are supposed to know how to achieve that, and how their learning will be judged. 

Written by

Shirley Clark (M.Ed., Hon. Doc) is a world expert in formative assessment, specializing in the practical application of its principles. Many thousands of teachers have worked with Shirley or read her books and, through them, the practice of formative assessment is continually evolving, developing and helping to transform students’ achievements. Shirley’s latest publications are Visible Learning Feedback with John Hattie, Thinking Classrooms with Katherine Muncaster, and The On-Your-Feet Guide to Partner Talk. Her website contains a videostreaming platform of clips of formative assessment in action as well as detailed feedback from her action research teams.

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