If you’re a practitioner of formative assessment, you may have heard of establishing success criteria in the classroom. Before students can take responsibility for their own learning, they need to make their own sense of the learning goals.
Many teachers (like me) conflate success criteria with a rubric: this is what will earn an A, what will earn a B, and so on. Too often, a rubric (or anything in the family of score sheets) is a handout with dos and don’ts for an assignment or project.
But how do we establish a rubric? Does the rubric support students as they show evidence of the learning goals? Or is it simply a compliance mechanism? And, most importantly, are students involved in that conversation?
When we ask ourselves those questions—and take the time to answer them—it becomes so much easier to set kids up for success. We’re able to collaborate with students to express success criteria for learning goals, which requires examples and conversation.
The power of beforehand
Shirley Clarke, an educational expert on formative assessment, says that for success criteria to have maximum impact, students must be involved in establishing them. Duh, right? Students must be involved in understanding and making meaning of the learning goals. They deserve clarity on what constitutes the finish line.
When I talked to my colleagues Erin Beard and Robin Whitacre, both members of the NWEA professional learning team, about this, they put it brilliantly: when you involve students in establishing success criteria before and duringan assignment, it makes the feedback after the assignment more meaningful.
When it comes to success criteria, students should be the coauthors of it before, the keepers of it during, and the reflectors of it after.
For a quick example, take a math game we play in my classroom. I write problems all over a smooth plastic ball, which we toss around, answering whichever math problem our right thumb lands on. Before I begin tossing it, however, I hover a whiteboard marker above the board and ask my students, “OK, what am I afraid of regarding this game?” This gives students the opportunity to steer us toward our learning goal: to 1) practice multiplication fluency while 2) having fun respectfully.
I hastily write as they say things like, “You’re worried we’re going to throw it too hard.” “You’re afraid we’re only going to throw it to our friends.” “You’re scared some of us are bad at catching!” (Another student chimes in, “So, maybe we can ask that it’s rolled to us if we’re nervous.”) “You’re worried we won’t answer the math problem and we’ll just get rowdy.”
I simply nod and write, and when they’re done talking, I fill in any gaps. “When a student is thinking about our answer, we give them space and don’t rush them. Math isn’t about speed, and neither is this game.” I also ask, “How will you know if you were successful at this game?” My favorite answer to this has been, “When we really want to catch the ball and get a harder problem!” My heart glowed.
My students adhere to this impromptu list of success criteria because they wrote it with me. They understand what will make this exercise successful because they thought of the guardrails first. And they troubleshoot issues as they go.
Did you start running before picturing the finish line?
I’ve been the recipient of student stress when it comes to announcing a new project. “What if we don’t…?” “Can we…?” “Will I get an A if…?” Have you?
Yet it’s so easy for students to spot an outstanding final product. While it’s sometimes hard for them to define the ideal outcome before a project (especially if it’s new to you and you can’t provide previous years’ exemplars), it is easy for students to post-define whose presentation/poster/paper/project was the strongest. If students have two projects side by side, they can usually identify the success of each, often with sophistication and justice.
It’s essential we remember—“we” being teachers, who then remind our students—that the product/project/paper is meant to distill and crystallize the learning goals. We must first articulate where the finish line is before we buy our running gear. This helps us separate “compliance” from “pathways toward learning.”
What’s more important? That students understand the process of photosynthesis or that they have a compelling amount of glitter on their poster? That students meaningfully argue their point in an essay or that the essay is 750 words?
A place to start
Students of all ages need practice when it comes to evaluation. How can we help students build this muscle without getting their feelings hurt?
Too often, teachers are the keepers of the finish line. When students are involved in the beginning, the power is more distributed, and the pressure is released.
If you are ready to perish from cuteness, watch these first graders use success criteria to evaluate each other. Because success is predefined in this example, it’s less likely to hurt feelings. Listen for the student who receives feedback with an, “Oh, right… But that’s OK. Next time!” Here’s what else is important in that video: The teacher asks the student, “How is giving feedback to your friends helping you to learn more?” Y’all, pause and read that again. Giving feedback to others helps us learn.
We rob students of a valuable learning moment when we don’t involve them in the success conversation in its entirety. When it comes to success criteria, students should be the coauthors of it before, the keepers of it during, and the reflectors of it after.
Where it gets sticky
One of the clarifiers Clarke’s work provides is that there are both product and process success criteria. As teachers, we are generally familiar with providing product success criteria because, chances are, we’ve done an assignment year after year, and we know what is “good.” This puts a finger on the problem with rubrics: they are too often assignment or product specific instead of learning-goal specific. How can we reframe to make sure rubrics address the learning goals?
This is usually what our rubrics focus on: Does the product have a thesis statement? Was it turned in on time? Are there five to seven cited sources? Check, check, check! Yet, when it comes to process success criteria, we sometimes forget to add clarity. What’s a thesis statement, and why do we need one? Why do we need sources, and how do you find five to seven reliable ones?
To address this, we can always divide our rubrics in half: one for how the final product turned out and one for how students performed during the process. But the fact remains: a rubric is a handout; success criteria are a conversation.
A rubric is a handout; success criteria are a conversation.
Honesty time. Defining success with our students means we have to define it for ourselves, and whether or not we like to admit it, that’s hard to do. We, too, can spot success at the end, when two projects are side by side—but beforehand? Sometimes it’s hard to articulate. It’s like describing what makes good art or what the perfect cup of coffee tastes like. We know what doesn’t work, but how do we evaluate more nuanced differences, especially when accounting for who our students are as individuals?
Getting on the same page
Maybe you’re at war with yourself—or maybe you can picture two colleagues promoting different success criteria—setting camps: “When we overdefine and overprescribe success, we rob students of their creativity. I’d rather leave some things open to interpretation than box students in.” Or, “It forces us to articulate what we expect as teachers, and demystifying that for students honors their ability to plan and execute. It keeps the process transparent and the power distributed.”
Both are so valid, right? When I discussed this conundrum with Erin and Robin, the brilliant minds I mentioned before, we didn’t arrive at a great answer. But we did agree that success criteria, when established among teachers and workshopped with students, allows for a less stressful, more equitable evaluation.
Too often, teachers are the keepers of the finish line. When students are involved from the beginning, the power is more distributed, and the pressure is released. Now, when we engage in feedback, it’s collaborative. We began this together, so let’s finish it together.
Picture your grade-level meetings, your PLCs, your cohorts. What if teachers first articulate their learning goals together—considering things like learning targets, outcomes, “I can” statements—and then take these beginnings to their students for editing, personalizing, and clarifying the success criteria to get to these goals? Maybe that’s where the richness of setting assessment criteria together can truly happen. Students can understand what is expected of them from a macro level yet remain invited to expand, question, and personalize.
After all, year after year, our students are different. In Erin’s words, “Let’s always interrupt assumptions and find out what this particular batch of humans thinks.”
Give it a shot. The results may surprise you.