Learning Goals and Success Criteria: How to Craft Them

“Effective teachers start with a standard, break the learning that standard requires into lesson-sized chunks, and then phrase these chunks so that students will be able to understand them.” (Hattie, 2017, p. 41)

Whether you’re new to the idea of identifying and collaboratively developing learning goals and success criteria with your students, or have been practising this critically important element of the assessment loop, you probably have some wonderings on this topic.

In this post we describe a process for how educators, when planning, can determine the learning goals and success criteria for a period of learning. In a future post, we’ll discuss how to guide students to know and understand them.

Effective learning goals and success criteria

If you’ve read our first posts about learning goals and success criteria, you’ve already encountered some important criteria for doing this effectively.

Effective learning goals:

  • identify the important knowledge and skills that students are to learn;
  • focus the learning on manageable ‘chunks’;
  • are written in language meaningful to your students and helpful to their learning, and;
  • foster a learning community and encourage students to take ownership of their learning.

Effective success criteria:

  • describe what it looks like/sounds like to achieve the learning;
  • are rooted in the high-level criteria described in the achievement chart*;
  • focus on both qualitative and quantitative characteristics of the learning;
  • are written in language meaningful to your students and helpful to their learning;
  • are organized in a way that is helpful to the learner, and;
  • encourage students to take ownership of and monitor the learning.

Getting started

Imagine that you’re planning for the next cycle of learning experiences. In Ontario, the curriculum policy documents identify the knowledge and skills that are to be learned, so that would be your starting point. It’s good practice to carefully analyse those expectations to be crystal clear on the knowledge and skills identified in them. Once identified, you’ll want to think about how to organize these elements in a way that is most beneficial to your students. Further, the curriculum expectations provide clues as to what it looks like to learn, i.e. the success criteria.

We’ve thought long and hard about what to suggest as a process for doing this. As much as we would like to give you a simple, step-by-step procedure for determining learning goals and success criteria, teaching and learning are complex processes, and it would detract from the effectiveness of learning goals and success criteria to over-simplify this process.

Rather than a list of steps, we suggest using the following questions to guide your thinking process:

What knowledge, skills and processes are students to learn?

It’s tempting to pick an expectation and to ‘turn it into a learning goal’. However, if we’re going to invite students to be active in their learning (to own it!), we need to go beyond telling them what the goal of ‘today’s lesson’ is (not that this isn’t important). By looking at a cluster of expectations (an overall and its related specifics), we can plan a period of learning experiences, and share with students not only what they are expected to learn, but how these different bits of knowledge and skill are interconnected, and for what purpose.

The curriculum expectations embody both the broad concepts and the fine details of what is to be learned. Both learners and educators benefit from organizing this information into a ‘roadmap’ of learning. Here’s one way to do that:

  • Look at a cluster of expectations (an overall and its related specifics).
  • List the knowledge, concepts, and terms that students are to know and understand.
  • List the skills and processes that students are to develop.

Here’s an example from the Writing Curriculum for Grade 5: (We’ve colour coded the items in columns 2 and 3 to correlate to the expectations in column 1.)

OVERALL & SPECIFIC EXPECTATIONS Knowledge, Concepts that learners need to understand Skills and Processes that learners are developing
1. generate, gather, and organize ideas and information to write for an intended purpose and audience;
  • intended purpose
  • intended audience
  • generate, gather, and organize ideas and information
1.1 identify the topic, purpose, and audience for a variety of writing forms

1.2 generate ideas about a potential topic and identify those most appropriate for the purpose

1.3 gather information to support ideas for writing, using a variety of strategies and a range of print and electronic resources

1.4 sort and classify ideas and information for their writing in a variety of ways

1.5 identify and order main ideas and supporting details and group them into units that could be used to develop several linked paragraphs, using a variety of strategies and organizational patterns

1.6 determine whether the ideas and information they have gathered are relevant, appropriate, and adequate for the purpose, and do more research if necessary

  • topic, purpose, and audience
  • writing forms
  • strategies for gathering information
  • print and electronic resources
  • ways to sort and classify ideas and information
  • difference between main ideas and supporting details
  • words and phrases that link paragraphs
  • strategies and patterns to organize writing
  • generate ideas
  • gather information to support ideas for writing
  • sort and classify ideas and information
  • identify and order main ideas and supporting details
  • group ideas and information into paragraphs
  • linking paragraphs
  • using strategies and organizational patterns to organize writing
  • assess ideas and information to see if they are relevant, appropriate and adequate
  • researching

This process of analysing the expectations means we now have a clear idea of what our students are to know and be able to do, providing a starting point for crafting the learning goals and the success criteria.

What is the big idea of this learning? What do you want students to know and remember in the long term?

Looking at the curriculum in this way, it becomes clear that we want learners to see the value of planning before they write, and to know what to consider when they are planning their writing – topic, purpose, audience; choice of writing form; relevance, appropriateness, and adequacy of ideas and information; how to logically and effectively organize the text. A ‘big idea’ might be:

       We can communicate our ideas more effectively if we plan before we write. Or

Planning before writing means our ideas will be communicated more effectively.

What is the goal of the learning?

There’s no one right way to express a learning goal. You will need to consider your learners’ prior knowledge and prior learning experiences to decide how to express the goal.  Here’s an example:

We are learning to plan before we begin writing, so that we can communicate effectively with our audience.

This goal flows from the overall expectation — the skills of ‘gathering, generating, and organizing ideas’ have been summed up as ‘planning before writing’. What that looks like will be set out in the success criteria.

What does it look like to demonstrate the learning goal? What are the success criteria?

You can draw on several resources to craft the criteria: the curriculum, the achievement chart*, and your own professional experience and expertise.

The curriculum: Here’s where the specific expectations and the work that we did in analysing them will be useful in identifying the success criteria. The specific knowledge, concepts, skills and processes should be reflected in the success criteria so that learners have a clear description of what successful learning looks like.

The achievement chart: In Ontario, educators use the achievement chart as a framework for all assessment and evaluation. The chart sets out high-level criteria that provide clues about what successful learning looks like.  You’ll see connections with the knowledge, concepts, skills, and processes you identified in the curriculum. Here’s an example of some criteria we identified, and their connections to the achievement chart:

Aligning criteria

Professional experience and expertise:  Having expertise in a subject area definitely supports you in your ability to accurately describe what it looks like to achieve the learning. However, it is sometimes difficult to remember what it was like not to know something or know how to do something, once you have mastered it. A great way to put yourself in your learners’ shoes is to do a task that is related to the learning goal. In this case, we thought about what is involved in planning to write while we planned to write this post.

Having drawn on all our resources, here are the success criteria we identified for the learning goal:

To show my learning,

  • I identify and describe the intended audience for my writing.
  • I decide on the purpose for writing before starting to write.
  • I know a variety of text forms.
  • I use a text form that is appropriate to my purpose, and I can justify my choice of form.
  • I can come up with appropriate ideas for my topic.
  • I gather relevant information using a variety of ways and a range of print and electronic resources.
  • I can select and use a graphic organizer to plan out my writing.
  • I know a variety of patterns for organizing text (cause and effect, procedure, chronological, etc.) and can justify my choice of organization.
  • I decide if I have enough information to communicate my ideas and message to my audience, and do more research if necessary.
  • I use paragraphs to organize a main idea and supporting details.
  • I use linking words and phrases to connect paragraphs.

(We’ve again used the same colour-coding to show the connections between the criteria and the curriculum.)

Having crafted the learning goal(s) and success criteria, we ‘self-assess’ using the criteria for effective goals and criteria set out at the beginning of this post:

Is the language  ‘meaningful’ to students, and supportive of their learning?

Most often, educators wonder, ‘If I use the terminology from the curriculum, the language may not be meaningful to my students. What do I do?’ Ask yourself – if the terminology is new to students, is it something that they would be expected to learn? Then use it. If it is a barrier to learning, then rephrase it.

In our example, we could just as well have phrased the learning goal, “We are learning to generate, gather, and organize our writing, so that we can communicate effectively with our audience.” The words “gather” and “organize” are probably familiar to a student in Grade 5; perhaps “generate” would require some explanation.

Are the success criteria organized in a way that is helpful to the learner?

We have come up with eleven criteria! That’s a lot of criteria for learners to keep track of, yet they are all important aspects of the learning goal. One way to help learners is to organize the criteria into categories. For example,

When planning for writing, I need to remember:

Audience, Form and Purpose

  • I identify and describe the intended audience for my writing.
  • I decide on the purpose for writing before starting to write.
  • I know a variety of text forms.
  • I use a text form that is appropriate to my purpose, and I can justify my choice of form.

Ideas and Information

  • I can come up with appropriate ideas for my topic.
  • I gather relevant information using a variety of ways and a range of print and electronic resources.
  • I decide if I have enough information to communicate my ideas and message to my audience, and do more research if necessary.

Organizing my Writing

  • I know a variety of patterns for organizing text (cause and effect, procedure, chronological, etc.) and can justify my choice of organization.
  • I can select and use a graphic organizer to plan out my writing.
  • I use paragraphs to organize a main idea and supporting details.
  • I use linking words and phrases to connect paragraphs.

Do the learning goals and success criteria foster a feeling of community, while encouraging students to take ownership of their learning?

You’ll notice the use of the phrase, “We are learning”. The “we” is so much more inclusive than “students will”, and conveys the idea that ‘we are in this together, we are going to help each other”. The criteria, on the other hand, use “I”, acknowledging that each learner is an individual, and will have individual successes and challenges in learning. Further, to support and motivate learners, it is helpful to include a rationale in the goal. Consider adding a ‘so that…’ to the statement to provide students a motivation for learning.

Do the success criteria focus on both quantitative and qualitative aspects of the learning?

Quantitative criteria are like on-off switches – students have either met, or not yet met them; a response is either correct or incorrect. We often see criteria that are very quantitative – and that’s ok. It is helpful to learners to, for example, know that they must be able to identify at least three different organizers for their writing.

Qualitative criteria describe characteristics of learning that range in a “continuous gradation” (Sadler, 1989, p. 124) from ‘not yet met’ to ‘met’. The most significant understandings and skills in the curriculum are described using qualitative criteria. For example, relevance. An example presented in a text can be completely relevant, not-at-all relevant, and shades of relevance in between those two extremes. If we want our students to learn these important abstract concepts, we need to embed them in our success criteria.

“Students’ understanding of learning goals and what it means to master them is fundamental to their success, because without such an understanding they are unable to monitor their progress or to generate relevant internal feedback.” (Timperley, H. & Parr, 2009, p. 57)

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

As a learner — young, old and in between – knowing what knowledge and skills I’m supposed to develop and what it looks like are critical pieces of information I need. If you’re not already using these practices, why not make a commitment now? Find a colleague who will learn with you and try it out! If you are, use the resources in this blog to refine and polish this aspect of your assessment practices. We’ve provided a planning template that follows the process outlined in this blog post.

*The achievement chart is a framework within which teachers “assess and evaluate student achievement of the expectations…It enables teachers to make consistent judgements about the quality of student learning based on clear performance standards and on a body of evidence collected over time.” (Growing Success, 2010, p. 16)

Hattie, J., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2017). Visible learning for mathematics: What works best to optimize student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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

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

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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