Encourage your students to advance their learning with their own success criteria

A science teacher describing his view through a telescope to his students who are rowing the boat

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Hand your students the oars to learning success so they can steer their own course

Learning intentions and success criteria are widely used in education, and teachers usually write these for use in their classroom. However, what would the benefits be if we were to allow pupils to take leadership of their own learning, with appropriate scaffolding?

For example, when learning to drive, the learning intention might be to become proficient in the different methods of parking; a success criterion might be to not crash while doing so. This is regardless of the method, be it parallel parking, reversing into a bay or James Bond style stunt parking.

Learning intentions can be seen as the end goal of a lesson, or series of lessons – a statement of what pupils should know about or be able to do. Incorporating learning intentions into a lesson is useful because it makes us, as teachers, think about the purpose of the lesson and decide what activities would be best to bring about learning. The focus is on what the pupils should learn, but not on how they will be learning or what we will be asking them to do. This ensures that the learning process is the point of focus.

Setting success criteria

Success criteria are measurable outcomes, which tell the learner they have achieved part of the learning intention. They are clearly linked to, and are relevant to, the learning intention. They break down the steps needed to meet the overall learning intention, helping to provide a framework for the lesson and a focus for learners during activities, allowing them to understand the relevance of activities to their learning. For example, for the learning intention, how to tell if a hydrocarbon is unsaturated, the success criteria could be:

  • I can describe what the term unsaturated means.
  • I can describe a chemical test, including the result, to tell if a hydrocarbon is unsaturated.
  • I can complete equations with structural formulae to show what has happened in the reaction.

The main purpose of success criteria is not to track improvements over time, but to help learners bring about those improvements for themselves.

However, can we build on this? For example, instead of telling learners what their success will look like, could we use success criteria to allow learners to decide for themselves? Most certainly. If sufficient preliminary work has been covered in a given topic, and with sufficient support, learners can go on to develop their own success criteria, thus facilitating greater engagement, motivation and outcomes.

Involving students in setting criteria

Traditionally, a teacher might quickly rattle through the key success criteria for a graph. However, without student engagement, would a pupil recall the details of this 10 minutes into the lesson? So, in encouraging a learner to take ownership of their own success, they can be asked to participate and use their existing knowledge.

In this example, lower secondary pupils were presented with an illustration of a graph and tasked with identifying the errors, such as an unlabelled axis. This provided the learners with a context, before asking them for suggestions of success criteria. They already had an idea of what was required to be successful and, in turn, they could actively engage to construct what was meant by successful in their own, more relatable fashion. Their criteria included what is typically expected, including:

  • Label the lines.
  • Use a title.
  • Put the marks in the right place.
  • Have minutes after time.

Essentially, this variance of the standard model of using success criteria revolves around the pupil. The aim is to encourage greater engagement and partnership from not only the whole class, but also individuals – which is essential in any subject.

Students’ feedback

In one case, I asked a more advanced chemistry class to comment on the experience after creating their own success criteria for a lesson. While some struggled with the task, comments afterwards included: ‘Setting the success criteria helps [you] be honest with yourself about what you need to work on, and that self-awareness is very useful,’ and ‘Because I set the success criteria myself, I felt the need to actually meet the criteria.’

As teachers, we can try to create individual experiences but will struggle unless we involve the individuals. Ultimately, aim to foster questioning, analytical minds and critical thinking – skills important not just in the classroom, but valuable in life too.

With thanks to Alastair Proctor for his guidance, suggestions and support in exploring pupil ownership and success criteria.

Claire Ritchie and Ian Carpenter