The concept of ‘success criteria’ is familiar to most educators — but scan the examples being shared on the internet, and it is evident that there are some misconceptions about what they are and what makes them effective.
Merriam-Webster defines ‘criterion’ as “a standard on which a judgment or decision may be based”. Dictionary.com suggests “a rule or principle for evaluating or testing something”.
We constantly use criteria in our lives — every time we make a decision or choice. Whether it’s to decide if a dish you cooked turned out well; if the outfit you chose is appropriate; to select a car, a home, or a partner, we use criteria to assess the outcome of a choice. Sometimes we are careful to be explicit about the criteria. When I purchased a condo, I generated a long list of “must haves” (i.e. criteria), and with each viewing, I refined those criteria based on my experience. Other times we may not even be aware that we are using criteria, they are so deeply entrenched in our thought process. However, the simple question, “Why did you make that choice?” or “Why did you take that action?” will elicit the criteria that we were using.
Success criteria are meant to take us out of the context of evaluation. They are used during the process of learning, and are descriptions of what it looks like to achieve a learning goal.
They are powerful tools for learning, and like all powerful tools, can be powerfully misused! When determining the criteria for success on a learning goal, be careful what you ask for because what you ask for is what learners will strive to demonstrate. The success criteria that you co-construct with students needs to precisely describe the learning that is set out in the curriculum. This applies to the learning goal as well. We’ll look at an example of a learning goal and related success criteria to show you what I mean:
First, setting the context. Here are the expectations from the Ontario Ministry of Education:
Gr. 4 Mathematics NSN
- read, represent, compare, and order whole numbers to 10 000, decimal numbers to tenths, and simple fractions, and represent money amounts to $100; (This learning focuses on fractions, the blue text.)
– represent fractions using concrete materials, words, and standard fractional notation, and explain the meaning of the denominator as the number of the fractional parts of a whole or a set, and the numerator as the number of fractional parts being considered;
– compare and order fractions (i.e., halves, thirds, fourths, fifths, tenths) by considering the size and the number of fractional parts (e.g., 4/5 is greater than 3/5 because there are more parts in 4/5; ¼ is greater than 1/5 because the size of the part is larger in ¼;
– compare fractions to the benchmarks of 0, 1/2, and 1(e.g., 1/8 is closer to 0 than to ½; 3/5 is more than ½);
– demonstrate and explain the relationship between equivalent fractions, using concrete materials (e.g., fraction circles, fraction strips, pattern blocks) and drawings (e.g., “I can say that 3/6 of my cubes are white, or half of the cubes are white. This means that 3/6 and ½ are equal.”);
Here’s an example of a learning goal and success criteria:
Learning Goal: We are learning to name equivalent fractions.
- I can use objects and drawings to show equivalent fractions.
- I can give an example of two equivalent fractions.
- I can write a story about equivalent fractions.
The learning goal in this example tries to convey the knowledge and skill embodied by the specific expectation, “demonstrate and explain the relationship between equivalent fractions, using concrete materials and drawings”. Look at the verbs in the expectation: demonstrate and explain. Now look at the verb in the learning goal: name. There is a vast difference between these skills. “Naming” equivalent fractions can be done by memorizing relationships, e.g. knowing that ½ is equivalent to 2/4, 3/6 etc. It could also mean the learner has memorized a strategy of multiplying the numerator and denominator by the same factor to obtain an equivalent fraction. While learners in this scenario are able to identify equivalents, the understanding that is required by demonstrating and explaining is not required to successfully achieve the learning goal.
The success criteria are also problematic for learners who are learning about equivalence, for a variety of reasons.
The first criterion, “I can use objects and drawings to show equivalent fractions” is a task that you might ask a learner to do to demonstrate their skill. However, the criterion provides little or no information about what it ‘looks like’ to understand the concepts of equivalence or fractions. The same can be said for the third criterion as well. The second criterion, “I can give an example of two equivalent fractions” is really just a restatement of the learning goal, to name equivalent fractions.
Consider a different approach:
Learning Goal: We are learning to compare fractional amounts.
- I can divide a whole into equal parts.
- I can divide a set of things into equal parts.
- I know fractional names and what they mean. (e.g. half, third, quarter)
- I can correctly write a fraction.
- I know that a fraction represents a part of a whole, or a part of a set of things.
- I know that the denominator represents how many parts the whole or the set has been divided into.
- I know that the numerator represents how many parts there are.
- I can compare the size of two fractions by looking at the number of parts.
- I can compare the size of two fractions by looking at the size of the parts.
- I can explain what ‘equivalent’ means.
This learning goal focuses the learning on comparing the magnitude of two or more fractions. That’s what equivalence requires – to know if one fractional amount is larger, smaller or equal in size. In fact, the learning goal could be, “We are learning to decide if one fraction is larger than, smaller than, or equal to another fraction.”
The success criteria provide ‘standards’ or ‘rules’ to decide if you are able to compare fractional amounts. If you can meet these descriptions, then you can be certain that you are able to compare them.
One more thing: You also might be wondering why the first three criteria are included, as these are actually success criteria relating to the learning about fractions in the Grade 3 curriculum. There are a number of reasons why you would want to include them in the list. First, these criteria connect the learners to prior learning. Second, learners will have a starting point of identified strengths to springboard from. Third, it’s possible that there will be some learners in your class who are still working on one or more of these.
One last thought, and a call to action!
How we convey to our learners what they are supposed to learn makes all the difference in their understanding. I’ve revisited learning goals and success criteria that I’ve crafted over the past many years, and have realized they need revision. That’s part of growing professionally. I’m buoyed by a quote from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Does anything in this post resonate with you? Have we encouraged you to revise or rethink any of the learning goals and success criteria that you have been crafting? Let us know — we all benefit by sharing our experiences and learning from each other!