Reflecting Back, Moving Forward: The Importance of Defining Criteria

“The indispensable condition for improvement is that the student comes to hold a concept of quality roughly similar to that held by the teacher, is able to monitor continuously the quality of what is being produced during the act of production itself, and has a repertoire of alternative moves or strategies from which to draw on at any given point.” (Sadler, 1989 p. 121)

Sometimes significant professional insights come from snippets of lived classroom moments. One moment can change you! It did for me. Back in the mid 1990s I was teaching Grade 7 and 8 Language and Visual Arts. We had been exploring the meaning of analogies. I had assigned – what I thought – was a really cool project. ‘If you were to visualize how your brain works, what would it look like? Create a three dimensional mindscape to depict your thinking.’ This was meant to be totally open ended. I didn’t say anything else – I wanted to see what students would create.

When the projects came in and students were explaining their amazing creations to the class, a young man, sitting next to me, said quietly, “If I had known what you wanted, I could have done that too!” It was a moment of clarity for me that changed my teaching practices. I thought about it and asked him, ‘Would you like to try it again?’ He seemed overjoyed and said he would do a great job now! And he did!

I can look back and name this pivotal moment as the beginning of my journey with sharing learning goals and collaboratively developing success criteria with students.

How did this moment impact my assessment and instructional strategies?

I learned to:

  • Make my thinking transparent to students and ask for their input;
  • Provoke students’ thinking by asking them to feedback to me about possible misconceptions;
  • Work together to describe what success might look like, sound like and feel like;
  • Gather samples so as a class we could discuss what makes a sample highly effective or less effective;
  • Review, monitor and revise criteria, if needed, throughout the process;
  • Build in time for growth by providing time for feedback based on the criteria, including time to respond and make adjustments before the final product was due;
  • Focus less on the product and more on the process, including time for reflection on what was learned.

running-297154_1280One last thought – and a call to action! I reflect back on this humbling moment recognizing how it moved my own professional learning forward. It changed my role from information-giver to feeling like a conductor of a complex symphony. Learning is redefined as a reciprocal sharing of thinking, within the third space, where students come to understand my notion of success and I respect the process of monitoring and calibrating evolving success criteria based on students’ input and wisdom.

We’ve all had moments when a student’s words or actions made a significant, positive impact on our thinking. Talk to a colleague about a pivotal moment in your career. Share a moment with our readers in the comment box.

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


  1. After years of recognizing the power of learning goals and success criteria but not truly understanding how to engage in authentic pedagogical documentation { “… pedagogical documentation is a process for making pedagogical (or other) work visible and subject to dialogue, interpretation, contestation and transformation.” (Dahlberg,2007, p. 225)} I had the incredible opportunity to explore this with colleagues. We deepened our understanding of the impact of embedding culturally relevant pedagogy on student achievement and student engagement. When we purposefully planned with a deep focus on Indigenous pedagogy and content; what we observed, heard and noticed in our students work changed all of us forever. When analyzing our documentation up against the success criteria our students taught us about possibilities. The products were full of information about what our students knew, their conversations were rich and filled with pride and we witnessed students who had never participated in classroom conversations volunteer their answers. For us as educators it was emotional and most certainly a pivotal moment in our teaching careers.


    1. Thank you Gail for sharing your pivotal moment. I was struck by the importance of deep listening as a way for educators to learn from students. Analysis of what was heard and documented, compared to the anticipated success criteria, allowed for student voice to be acknowledged. Many thanks.


  2. Thank you for sharing one of your pivotal moments! If learning is what happens when we reflect on experience, then your blog entry has helped me learn! I have been thinking about some of my own pivotal moments as an educator, when somehow I stopped long enough in the busy act of teaching to actually learn from and with my students. Sometimes, as educators, we make assumptions, take shortcuts, simply because the day to day of teaching moves so quickly, we have difficulty slowing down to the speed of learning. One such experience for me was both humbling and affirming. I had had pretty much the same group of students for 3 years, as I moved ‘up the grades’ as they did in our small school. By our 3rd year together, we had such a smooth working rhythm that often, I didn’t even have to slow down, I thought, to develop success criteria with them, have conversations about what constituted rich process or product. True, a few of the students, especially the new ones, seemed to be struggling a bit, but maybe they had always struggled. My moment came in the form of a health crisis for one of my students; in the Fall, she had an AVM, an intercranial bleed, that took her away from us for a few months. When she returned, her brain injury changed everything for her, for the class and for me. She reminded me, in her new and persistent struggles with memory, language processing and emotional fragility, that slowing down to the speed of learning meant we all learned more, including how to collaborate better, listen more respectfully and ultimately, enjoy the development of both the process & the product so much more. Learning, real learning takes time–for all the learners in the room!


    1. “…slowing down to the speed of learning meant we all learned more” Sometimes it takes adversity to open our eyes to new possibilities. It must be said that these students must truly understand the idea of ‘community of learners’. Thank you Susan for sharing this insight!


  3. Thanks for taking time to share a “pivotal” moment. Mine was when I was first met with an English language learner who was working at Step 1 of English Proficiency. I quickly realized what works for one doesn’t work for everyone. I could monitor her in many ways but was I giving the student time to reflect on her own practice and engage in collaborative feedback? My “pivotal” moment came when another student gently guided the student into a discussion through art, gestures and photos taken with the ipad. The other student was gathering evidence side by side with student to create a showcase of her work. Her “teammate” spoke the same language and was able to support the process. As time moved on, English came easily and so did reflection, reciprocal sharing and thinking.


  4. I began to realize after a year of teaching Grade 11 English that the first essay of the year was consistently producing very low levels on the assessment. There were basically no level 4s and few level 3s, despite giving them clear prompts and a clear rubric. I started to think about what I could do in order to fix that issue, as feedback consistently came back that they were struggling with the assignment, had forgotten what they had been taught about essays, never really understood a thesis, statement in the first place, etc. I now spend two full class periods reviewing essays BEFORE the assignment. I print out exemplars of levels 1, 2, 3 and 4 introductions (without names, of course, and from many years back) and have students, in groups, use the self-checklist and rubric to try to identify which level each essay is and WHY. They have to go through and try to find the thesis, the hook, the three points, etc. If they are able to do this in someone else’s work, then it is my hope that they can, in turn, use this to check their own. After the essay is submitted, I provide extensive feedback using Google comments and we then conference for 5-10 mins about their greatest strengths and areas for improvement. I have consistently seen that this not only helps the first essay but using the feedback from essay 1 many students improve drastically for the second essay! Win-win!!!


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