The Power of Success Criteria

Success criteria goes beyond identification of instructional objectives.  Success criteria supports teachers and students by adding clarity to the learning process.  By utilizing success criteria appropriately, the teacher can tap into the potential of several powerful professional tools.

Instructional Objectives Need Criteria

Nine years ago I took up golf.  I hated every moment of that struggle to get the ball straight and in the air.  Each time I went to the driving range or out with friends, it was an embarrassing and humbling experience.  I knew what I wanted to do, but did not understand how to do it.  Fortunately, my wife came to the rescue and bought me lessons.

Those lessons did not make me a scratch golfer (far from it), and they did not give me instant success.  With my goal of getting the ball to go straight, my coach gave me practical steps towards achieving that goal.  As the lessons and practice in between increased, so did my skills.  Although I’m still one of the worst golfers out of my friends, I can now achieve my objective of getting the ball to go straight more times than not.

Getting the golf ball to go straight (note: not long or even in the air) was my instructional objective.  I knew the objective, but did not understand the criteria to meet that objective.  That is very similar to what happens in many classrooms across the country.

Teachers are identifying their instructional objectives

but many do not identify the necessary success criteria

to meet those instructional objectives.

The notion is simple.  Once an instructional objective is established, it is up to teachers to identify and communicate the success criteria students need to complete to accomplish the objective.

Powerful PLC Conversations

The first critical question of any PLC is “What do we expect students to learn?”  While this question is asked and answered several times during a school year, teams often do not dive deep enough into the question to state the success criteria necessary to achieve the goals.

For Example: When a team of teachers gets together to analyze the data on the progress of students, it is easy for the team to identify strengths and weaknesses of students, the lesson, curriculum, etc.  The next level of work is for the team to identify what specific steps need to occur to support students in achieving the next identified level.  If it is identified that a large concept or skill is the deficit, the team then needs to decide what specific success criteria need to occur for students to reach the identified goal.  By doing so, the team creates greater clarity for instructors and students.  Furthermore, the curriculum has a greater chance of being guaranteed and viable because of the alignment and commitment generated through this work.

As teachers we often discuss the concepts students need to learn, but rarely come to consensus as to the specific criteria to achieve those concepts. When success criteria is discussed in PLC’s, a guaranteed and viable curriculum is more easily ensured and executed.

This aides teachers in obtaining a greater understanding of necessary information for students.  Furthermore, a team of teachers discussing the success criteria in a PLC gives teachers a chance to learn together and increase their own depth of understanding.

Linear or Circular Success Criteria

Success criteria can take different forms.  Most commonly is going to be either linear or circular progression of criteria towards achieving an instructional objective.

1.  Linear Success Criteria 

Linear success criteria is the most common.  These are step by step building blocks to achieving the instructional objective.  This type of success criteria builds upon each other and can be easily communicate in a list.  For example, an algebraic instructional objective may require students to understand, solve and follow a specific set of steps towards achieving an instructional objective.  One cannot skip a step and still achieve the instructional objective.

2.  Circular Success Criteria

Sometimes achieving an instructional objective requires weaving and blending success criteria together.  In this case, the success criteria may be circular and weaves criteria together to help work in unison towards accomplishing the learning objective.  Testing theories, making inferences, and several performance pieces may require a circular set of success criteria.

Success Criteria as Formative Assessment

Success criteria provides a structure to formatively assess student progress.  If the success criteria is linear and builds upon each other, then meeting the first success criteria is critical.  This is a tool and opportunity for formative assessment.  The success criteria in the scenario tells the instructor if they are ready to move to the next piece or not.

If the criteria is circular, then formatively examining the success criteria helps an instructor better understand areas where breakdowns in understanding prevents students from fully realizing the instructional objective.

Powerful Student Feedback

Feedback is critical to learning.  It is widely known the that effective feedback positively impacts student achievement (Hattie, 2009).  Success criteria provides the space to get that feedback along the way.  Teachers utilizing success criteria understand what matters and should get measured to ensure student learning.  More importantly, these teachers have structured areas for critical feedback to students.

Once the success criteria is established and communicated, the teacher has an opportunity to share the explicit success criteria with students.  Once the success criteria is in their hands, they can explore it further and use that success criteria to help provide feedback to their peers.


Matt DeBaene
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Matt DeBaene

Assistant Superintendent for Assessment and Accountability at Moline-Coal Valley CUSD #40
Matt DeBaene is the Assistant Superintendent for Assessment and Accountability for Moline-Coal Valley Community Unit School District #40 and the 2015 recipient of the Western Illinois University Arnold W. Salisbury Educational Leadership Award.
Matt DeBaene
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