Collaboratively Developing Students’ Understanding of Success Criteria: Introduction (Part 1)

…to the extent that criteria are shared, students [receive the] power to recognize strong performance, power to identify problems in weak performances, and power to use criteria to change and improve performance. (Arter & Spandel, 1992)

When you read the title of this post, did it affirm your thinking or did it evoke a sense of questioning…’But how do I do that?’ Whether you are already collaboratively developing students’ understanding of the success criteria (some folks call this process co-creating or co-constructing criteria) or you are wondering how to get started, this series of posts are for you.

We’d like to say that we have an easy, step-by-step approach for you to consider but to be truthful, our favourite recurring phrase comes into play – ‘it depends’. It will depend how you intend to use success criteria in supporting students’ learning. We do have very specific advice though! Ask yourself, ‘What is my purpose? What will be my next intentional instructional move?’ Purpose and intentionality are precursors to making decisions that optimize harnessing the power of both learning goals and success criteria.

In a previous post, we explored Collaboratively Developing Students’ Understanding of Learning Goals, detailing how important it is for students to be able to identify what they are expected to learn. Simply put, students need to know the answer to the questions, “Where I am going?” (Hattie and Timperley, 2007) or “What am I expected to learn?”   

Success Criteria describe and calibrate what quality work looks like and sounds like, enabling students to visualize progress towards achieving the learning goals. Students ask themselves, “How will I get there?” Using a golfing analogy, think of the flag as the learning goal. There are many ways to successfully get the golf ball to the flag. Interconnected and interrelated, learning goals provide the vision; success criteria provide the power to reach the goal.

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)

Establishing Educators’ Understanding of Criteria

We’ve heard from educators, ‘How can I ask students to discuss what quality work looks like when they are too inexperienced? Too young? Do I accept everything they suggest? What if they miss identifying important criteria?’ Before educators and students work alongside each other to collaboratively develop understanding, educators must first define the purpose and extract the vision for the learning. Each educator needs to have a deep understanding of the learning and be able to articulate the success criteria for the learning goal(s). ‘If this is what I believe students need to learn, then I have to ask myself, what does success look like?’

Educators drawing from their own expertise and experience and hopefully working with colleagues as thought partners, harvest possible criteria from curriculum documents, the Achievement Chart* and other relevant resources, including samples of student work.  

With anticipated success criteria in the educators’ toolbelt, how might students come to hold a concept of quality similar to that of the educator?

Stay tuned for practical suggestions on how to collaboratively develop students’ understanding of success criteria:

Part 2: Modelling Criteria

Part 3: Using Samples to Uncover Criteria

Part 4: A Dynamic, Ongoing Process

running-297154_1280One last thought – and a call to action! Students should not have to guess what quality work looks like or sounds like! Share with a colleague how you develop students’ understanding of success. Let us know too!

Arter, J., Spandel, V., (1992). Using Portfolios of student work in instruction and assessment. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practices, NCME Instructional Module (Spring), 201-209.

Shepard, L., Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Rust, F., Baratz Snowden, J., Gordon, E., Gutierrez, C., Pacheco, A. (2005). Assessment. 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.


  1. I just read this post two days after attending the Thinking Symposium with Sandra Herbst – she also emphasized modelling and/or using student samples to help co-create success criteria and what she calls ‘details’ with students. Your blog reinforces these ideas for me. Thanks


  2. I just read this after working with a teacher who attended the thinking symposium and what resonates with me is the phrase “it depends”. There is not one cookie cutter approach to co-constructing. She is finding that the students are engaged in finding the details, but they are having difficulty grouping them to form the criteria. How much of a role should the teacher take here? take the details from the students and phrase the criteria herself?


    1. Hi Heather: You’re not going to like the response – it depends! It’s early in the year; the teacher may want to group the criteria for the students and model the thinking process, I grouped these criteria together because they all refer to…. I’m going to name this group…Let’s work on the next grouping together. ‘ OR ask students ‘Why do you think I have grouped these together? What makes them the same? Can we come up with a word or phrase that describes this grouping?

      Throughout the year, students will be encouraged to list, group and name the criteria.


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