Success Criteria: An indispensable condition for improvement

“Setting clear targets for student learning involves more than posting an instructional goal for students to see. It also requires elaboration of the criteria by which student work will be judged.” (Shepard et al, 2005)

It’s so hard to put ourselves in our learners’ shoes. Once you know something or have mastered a skill, it’s really hard to remember what it was like to struggle with it. Case in point: do you remember what it was like not to be able to read? We don’t.

Joanie was recently talking with an educator from the Junior Division about Language expectation 1.5, “use stated and implied ideas in texts to make inferences and construct meaning”.  (Ontario Curriculum, Language, 2006, p. 83) Asking what he would be looking for in terms of student performance, he said, “They should be able to read between the lines.” At a working session, primary and secondary educators gave the same response. Think about it: if you know what it means to infer, you will understand this metaphor. If you don’t know how to infer, you may very well draw a blank, as empty as the blank spaces “between the lines”!

Speaking of things between lines, do you remember what it was like to try to keep the car between the centre line and the shoulder when you were learning to drive? I marvel at how difficult that seemed when I was learning, and how I don’t even think about it now.

What are success criteria?

Criteria describe the characteristics or properties of a demonstration of learning so that the learner has a clear understanding of what s/he is striving to achieve. Criteria vary depending on the nature of the learning goal. “Effectiveness” is a criterion that is often used, but is usually too vague or broad to give learners the information they need. More specific properties or characteristics include: appropriateness, clarity, accuracy, precision, logic, relevance, significance, fluency, flexibility, depth, and breadth (Growing Success, 2010, p. 18)

Why are success criteria critical to learning?

Sadler lists students coming to “hold a concept of quality roughly similar to that held by the teacher” – i.e. the criteria – as one of three “indispensable conditions for improvement” (Sadler, 1989, p. 121) in student learning. Together with learning goals, success criteria form the foundation for all other assessment practices. Appropriate tasks, descriptive feedback, ongoing monitoring, peer and self-assessment and goal setting are all contingent on understanding the learning goals and the success criteria!

Success criteria are teaching and learning tools that students and educators can use to monitor growth and progress. Learners need to develop a concept of what it looks like to achieve their learning goals. When they have this information, they can use it to monitor their learning, decide where to focus their efforts, and make adjustments in their performance or understanding. In the absence of clear criteria, learners will often develop their own, which may be inaccurate or contain misconceptions.

With relevant and accurate criteria, learners are empowered to make decisions to move their learning forward.

Here’s an example of a learning goal and success criteria for the skill of inferring meaning from text:

We are learning to make inferences from texts to understand the author’s message.

This means that

  • I can explain the difference between stated information and implied information.
  • I can come up with an idea from the text that is implied by the author.
  • I can convince others that my idea is appropriate, using clues from the text or my prior knowledge and experience.


running-297154_1280 One last thought – and a call to action!

When you’re learning, you need detailed criteria to help guide you. Sometimes as experienced learners, we forget that. Before you plan what learning will hopefully happen in your classroom tomorrow, give some deep thought to what it feels like not to know how to do this skill. Dig into that curriculum document, go to your resources, check out the internet – whatever it takes – but before you go into the classroom tomorrow, be able to articulate, in language meaningful to your students, what it looks like to demonstrate the learning.

Getting the success criteria right is one of the great challenges of our work as educators – it’s complex, it requires deep knowledge of what you are teaching, and an understanding of your students and where they are in their learning. Don’t let this challenge stop you. Remember the old adage – you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Find a colleague and share the workload. Take a stab at it, observe your learners, and refine, refine, refine! Success criteria aren’t written in stone. Students may contribute by suggesting revisions, additions or deletions that may not have occurred to you during planning. More on this in subsequent posts :).

Post your successes and challenges on our blog. Let’s start the conversation!

“… patterns of achievement can change if teachers reveal the secrets of how to be successful. Some students are able to work out from their teachers’ implicit or confused messages what it is they are supposed to be learning and what mastery looks like and, consequently, have access to the conditions that will allow them to focus on mastery goals and to self-regulate their learning. But, for many, these features need to be made more explicit to help them understand what they are working towards…:” (Timperley & Parr, 2009).

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. First edition, covering Grades 1 to 12. Toronto: Author

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2006). The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1 – 8: Language. Toronto: Author.

Sadler, D. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18, 119–144.

Shepard, L., Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Rust, F., Baratz Snowden, J., Gordon, E., Gutierrez, C., & Pacheco, A. (2005). Assessment. In L. Darling-Hammond and J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 275 -326). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Timperley, H. & Parr, J. (2009). What is this lesson about? Instructional processes and student understandings in writing classroom. The Curriculum Journal, 20(1), 43–60.



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