Success Criteria: A Five-Star Recipe for Students

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By Kara Bentley

Teachers, when your students walk into your classroom…

  • Do they know what they’re going to be learning?
  • Do they know what they NEED to know to demonstrate understanding of content?
  • Are they prepared to autonomously apply their knowledge to successfully complete a task?
  • Do they have exemplars or other evidences that guide their thinking? Or, are they looking to you to lead them vs. guide them?

Defining Learning Targets and Success Criteria

A learning target is a clear objective of what the teacher wants students to learn. It is NOT an activity or an assignment. The learning target can change daily or weekly, depending on your students, and should be referred to at the beginning, middle, and end of each lesson.

Success criteria are statements that learners can use to:

  • Stay focused on a given task
  • Determine exactly what they need to know and do
  • Identify where they are in their learning
  • Reflect and revise their learning

To put success criteria to work, students need to know how to read statements, understand what the statements are telling them to know and do, and then check off each statement in the success criteria as they demonstrate and track their own learning. It’s student autonomy at its greatest.

A Food Network Style Example

Let’s put this into the context of the popular Food Network Show “Chopped.” The teacher is the Master Chef and the students are the chefs.

A learning target could be something like, “Given a set of ingredients, students will be able to prepare an appetizer,” in which case the success criteria for an appetizer course might include:

  • Complete in 20 minutes
  • Incorporate and transform (in some way) four mandatory ingredients
  • Use additional ingredients as available and as warranted
  • Appetizers will be judged on:
    • Creativity
    • Taste
    • Presentation

Important Note: The “chefs” are NOT being TOLD what to make. Rather, they are given (shown) the ingredients they must use in their appetizer course. It is up to the CHEFS to decide how to use each ingredient to meet the criteria of an appetizer that is creative, tasty, and looks great!


Out With the Old; In With the New

In an “old economy” classroom, we teachers were accustomed to providing students with not only the ingredients, but also the steps they should take to demonstrate understanding of their learning. Our teaching was procedural and systematic. We asked students to retrieve information rather than utilize their knowledge to demonstrate understanding.

In a “new economy” classroom, we are providing students with the ingredients, but NOT the steps they should take. THAT decision rests on the STUDENT based on the Success Criteria. We are empowering—through instruction and success criteria—our students to dig deep and autonomously demonstrate understanding of their learning by designing the performance tasks with real- or future-world scenarios and authentic resources.

The taxonomy (complexity level) has shifted to Knowledge Utilization rather than baseline retrieval or comprehension.

So…Ponder This for a While

Are you giving your students TOO much support (ingredients AND a step-by-step recipe)? Or are you giving them the RESOURCES they need to independently (or collaboratively) demonstrate, justify, and explain their thinking and learning?

Remember… we are not looking for 100% “A” scores! We’re looking for [learning] growth that occurs through productive struggle and questioning—led by STUDENTS and NOT by TEACHERS.

Give your students the INGREDIENTS, but DON’T explicitly tell them what to do. Let them figure it out on their own and chart their own course. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results!

Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools.