Imagine telling a group of students to draw the “perfect” smiley face (and that is the only instruction given). Then after each draws their version, revealing what a “perfect” smiley face looks like. No student gets it right (naturally). They didn’t know it needed a nose, eyes, and ears! The result is immense frustration for the students and a failed lesson for the teacher. This example is the educational path without clear learning targets and shared success criteria. Paying close attention to these two elements will transform your formative assessment practice[1].  

The Two Elements Necessary for Your Formative Assessment Practice to Work Effectively

Clear Learning Targets

Unclear, muddied learning targets are a recipe for disaster. It’s like driving with a GPS to an unknown destination – taking you through turn after turn with no clue where you will land. Sounds anxiety-inducing, right?

Although there are subtle differences in how we describe ‘what students need to know’ (i.e., goals, targets, objectives), it is knowing the purpose and intention for the learning that is essential. The process starts with the academic standards. Standards are the end of the year indicators – a representation of a year’s worth of work. It is up to educators, working in teams, to take the language of the standard and deconstruct it to determine content, language, and skills students need to be successful in incrementally reaching that year-end standard.

Learning goals are descriptions of what students should know by the end of a unit or set of lessons (over time). They include a focus on concepts, big ideas, and the analytical and disciplinary practices. They should build on prior learning, be responsive to observations of students’ strengths and misconceptions, and amplify how language will be used to communicate learning. These are the building blocks for developing high-quality learning progressions.

Learning targets are descriptions of what students should know by end of a lesson (daily). Theyshould progressively build to align with the learning goals and be specific and measurable. They use disciplinary language but are phrased in a way that students understand. Clear learning targets also define evidence that will be used to determine how students progress towards learning goals. While standards and goals are written from a teaching perspective, learning targets are written from the students ‘point of view’ and should be shared and even co-constructed with learners.

Strong, Realistic Success Criteria

Learning intentions (goals/targets) without clear success criteria are ineffective. Let’s use the example of the smiley face. Instead of revealing the success criteria after the task, share examples of what success looks like prior to the task. This allows for a focus on the learning, not just what they are supposed to do. In other words, it’s not about the task; it’s about the learning. Students should be learning as a result of doing. Clear learning targets (that build toward goals) and shared success criteria help students and teachers stay the course. We have to break the belief that what success looks like is what you “achieve” when you get to the end of learning.

Here are five ways to share and co-construct success criteria with students:

  • Show a finished product of what success looks like
  • Compare two finished products and have students describe features of quality (why is one better than the other?)
  • Revisit existing success criteria to revise and improve
  • Do a task incorrectly/incompletely and allow the students to correct you
  • Use success criteria throughout the tasks to guide learning

The formative assessment process plays a part through the observation and collection of learning evidence generated from the targets and success criteria. This process also provides learners practice with self-assessment and peer assessment in comparison to the success criteria. When you know where you are going, you can better determine where you are in the journey. Students can see a very clear path: “That’s where I need to go, I’m currently here, and these are the steps I need to take to get there.” It removes the frustration, anxiety and sadness that can be associated with feeling behind. This clarity allows students to self-analyze and gain introspection to their own learning, which is empowering for the students AND the teacher. “I’m not there yet” becomes a great place to be!

Collaboration at All Levels

Withholding success criteria isn’t just unfair, but it’s also inequitable. This process can’t be done effectively by following along in a textbook and should not be done in isolation. It takes knowing your students, having a deep understanding of who they are, where they are in their learning, and what steps need to be taken to get them to where they need to be. Publishers have created amazing guides, but they can’t do the thinking for teachers. So much of learning stems from personal experiences and situations, and simply following along in a textbook and ignoring the human aspect of learning is not only ineffective, but dangerous. We must pivot from a dependency on textbooks to create a learning experience that values a learning progression and is human-focused.

In Summary

Customized learning targets and success criteria can be frightening for educators. It can be a messy process and doesn’t necessarily fit into a box. But it doesn’t have to be done alone. This is a collaborative process. When you launch it and stick with it (seriously, don’t give up after a first failed attempt!) an amazing learning community is created! Learners gain a sense of agency and the teacher is not the only holder of the information. It’s a collective. And what teacher, student or parent/caregiver can deny the power of that?

Image Credit: Getty Images used with permission

[1] Formative Assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides productive feedback that is used to adjust instruction to meet goals.