Success Criteria: On the Road to Increasing Student Autonomy

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By Shannon Pretorius

How do coaches or administrators support teachers in advancing all learners so they achieve the highest levels of individual success? How do teachers prepare students to be lifelong learners in a world where they’ll need to be proficient in collaboration and problem solving?

There’s one answer to both questions: through rigorous instruction and implementation of high-impact techniques in the classroom. One technique is to determine success criteria and make it visible to students while they work.

Developing Success Criteria

To be successful, students need to know exactly what is required of them to meet an expectation or learning target. It takes the guesswork out of whether or not they mastered an objective or standard. Teachers are often surprised that this helps their students, but why wouldn’t it? They are helping students understand what is expected without giving them the answers.

If you were taking a road trip, first you would choose your destination. Then you would determine the safest way to get there. Some of us would choose the most efficient way, while others would choose the scenic route. Some would choose a route where they would have choices for restaurants and gas stations while others would bring all necessities with them. Everyone preps for a trip in a different way, and many learn something along the way that influences the next trip .

Teachers Provide a Destination; Students Choose Their Routes

Providing success criteria to students (derived from the learning targets/standards) takes the guesswork out of the lesson. This allows students to work collaboratively with others to figure out how to the success criteria. When students run into roadblocks, they will problem-solve and use supports, always keeping the destination in mind.

Students who struggle academically are often used to running into roadblocks and having to plan an alternative. Some of struggling learners may show the most perseverance when it comes to regrouping and trying something else when one path fails.

Some students may only know one route to reach their destination. Collaborating with a team to explore a route in more detail, or working through a new route together, is easier when the destination (their success criteria) is understood.

Setting Students Up to Succeed

I once asked a third-grade teacher to define the success criteria for her students and have them work together to complete a standards-based task. “Not my class. No way,” was the response. “I don’t have enough kids with the level of language needed to work together like that. I have really low kids.”

But she tried. She modeled a short lesson about character development and then assigned kids to groups to complete an activity. They had to find places in their story where a character changed. They had to determine events that contributed to that change. She was nervous, mostly that her students would struggle and fail.

Once she released students to the task, she listened to groups talking and watched for the methods they used to complete the activity. I walked around the classroom, listening as well. I heard students start by asking each other questions regarding what they were supposed to do. Some students went to the board to reference the criteria for success.

Then I narrowed in on a group where one student searched quickly through a book, focused on finding a certain page. “I know!” she said. Others in her group paid attention to what she was doing. When she found the page she was looking for, she asked, in few words, for another group member to read the page. Once he finished, she grabbed the book back and searched with great intention for a different page.

While she was doing this, the conversation in the group focused on recapping the characters from the story. Once the child arrived at the new page, she again asked for help reading it. Then her face lit up as she exclaimed, “Look! Here! That! Here! Look!”

She pointed back and forth between the success criteria that the teacher presented and the page in the book. She was convinced she had found a helpful spot in the story. She had.

The other three group members looked, read aloud, and all four contemplated the information. The group then analyzed their information, recorded some important character information, and completed the task together.

Why the Group Was Successful

The students had met the success criteria, and they knew it. They could check their work against the success criteria even before the teacher checked in with them.

The success of the group was not based on one person coming up with all the answers. They succeeded because the teacher had set them up to succeed. She had created a safe classroom environment where students felt comfortable trying new things, working with others, asking questions, and grappling with new information, and then she made their success criteria visible, so all students understood the end goal.

This teacher laid the groundwork for her students to soar. She showed them what success looked like, and she allowed each group to get there in their own way. Supporting all students doesn’t have to mean pulling the “low” kids aside to teach them in a small group while others are working in teams.

Student-led academic teams empower all students to collaboratively master their learning targets – allowing each learner to choose a route and arrive at the right destination.