Collaboratively Developing Students’ Understanding of Success Criteria: Using Samples to Uncover Criteria (Part 3)

When you give students information that they can use to improve, and they see and understand that they can do it… students will experience feelings of control over their learning that are so positive they’ll prefer constructive criticism… This feeling of control over learning is true self-efficacy. It is the foundation of motivation for learning. (Brookhart, 2008)

Welcome back to the series Collaboratively Developing Students’ Understanding of Success Criteria. Refer back to Part 1 – Introduction  and Part 2 – Modelling Criteria to set the context. This third post in the series focuses on using samples to uncover criteria.

Actions to consider when fostering students’ understanding of criteria

Using Samples to Uncover Criteria

Given two, explicitly chosen samples of work or performance of varying quality to compare and contrast, even young students can pick out what makes one sample better than another. (eg. Which sample do you think is better? Why do you think so?) Giving opportunities for students to pinpoint and describe elements of success followed by a consolidation of thinking allows students to calibrate their perceptions of quality work. This process also instills a reasoning process based on a simple question, ‘How do you know?’ This metacognitive process of justification begins a cycle of reflection based on criteria and corresponding evidence – setting the stage for self and peer assessment!  

The use of samples solidifies the concept of a range of performance. It’s one thing to be able to identify a criterion but for students to understand that success implies a range of quality allows students to make connections and assess where their work ‘fits in’.  We have witnessed educators building a living rubric (e.g. continuum of writing samples) where samples have been ordered from least effective to most effective. A very intentional and effective strategy begins by collaboratively building a continuum using samples, labelling or highlighting specific criteria and clearly indicating how work improves from one sample to the next. Students need to be ‘see themselves’ in the work samples without feeling overwhelmed. Using a sample match strategy, students are asked to match up their work against the sample continuum. This visual representation of thinking creates a feedback tool that shows ‘Where to next?’

Caution: For your consideration when using samples

  • Respectfully using student samples: Many educators rewrite and alter samples slightly to avoid identifying students.
  • Applying asset-based thinking: Shine a flashlight on what students can do rather than identifying a gap or what is missing.
  • Creating a collaborative sample: Working together as a group to create a shared sample not only increases student ownership but also creates an opportunity for the educator to model the thinking process of how to improve work.  ‘It’s our thinking! We know what success looks like and we know how to make it happen!’
  • Ensuring metacognitive thinking, not an evaluative stance: Foster a culture of growth mindset where students build confidence in applying success criteria, believing they are capable of achieving quality work.
  • Being mindful of unintended consequences:  It is surprising when student make connections we did not intend or expect! By using only four samples when creating a continuum or labelling samples levels 1 – 4, we may intentionally propel students into an evaluative mode and shut down thinking. Instead, intentionally create a living rubric with three, five or ten samples, as needed, across a bulletin board or wall space. Label samples with terms referring to improvement over time (e.g. Getting Started to Getting to Wow to WOW!) Better yet – ask students to generate labels!
  • Another unintended consequence: As educators work together with students to model and apply success criteria, often samples get longer and longer. When asked what students learned about describing success one student remarked, ‘The more you add; the better it is!’ This is not what the educator had intended. Ponder this famous quotation, ‘If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter’ (first attributed to Blaise Pascal)

Stay tuned: Part 4 of 4 – A Dynamic, Ongoing Process for Collaboratively Developing Students’ Understanding of Success Criteria.

running-297154_1280One last thought – and a call to action! There are so many ways to share and extract information from samples! What process have you witnessed? How do you use samples to develop understanding? Share with us!

Brookhart, S. (2008). How to Give Feedback to your Students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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