Co-Constructing Success Criteria: The What, Why, and How of Sharing Clarity With Learners
By Kara Vandas
“The worst learning scenario is to be unaware of expectations or how your work will be judged and to have no guidelines about how to achieve the objective in the first place.” Shirley Clarke (2008, p. 81).
Have you ever been in those shoes? The shoes where you have no idea what is expected of you or how to be successful?
It's a pretty uncomfortable and even nerve-wracking position to be in as a learner. An eighth- grade student that was interviewed on this issue said, “I feel frustrated and confused. I don’t want to do the work because I have no idea what I am supposed to do or what to even ask my teachers.” When asked when he feels the most motivated in school he replied, “It’s when I am going deeper and deeper in the learning, and I can show that I am actually learning.”
This lack of clarity and desire to go deep in learning is where Co-Constructing Success Criteria comes into play as a powerful practice for moving learning forward. Simply defined it is the practice of working with students to develop a shared understanding of what success looks like (Almarode & Vandas, 2018, p. 75).
Why does co-construction matter so much?
It matters because it makes learning go faster. How many of us have been looking for a strategy or practice that accelerates learning?
Let's explore a few reasons why that is.
1. Co-Constructing Success Criteria allows for analysis of learning expectations, which sets off the metacognitive process for students.
Metacognition is essential, as it is the active monitoring of one’s own learning (What is Metacognition?). Co-Constructing Success Criteria ignites this process because kids must think through learning expectations, review and analyze examples and exemplars (high quality work that meets learning expectations), and plan for their next steps in learning. In doing so, it allows for self-appraisal of how close or far one is from the expectation.
2. This in turn, kicks off the feedback loop between learners, teachers, self, and peers. Wisniewski, Zierer, & Hattie (2020) define feedback in three capacities:
Feed-Up: Comparison of actual status with target status (determining expectations)
Feedback: Comparison of the actual status with previous status (determining progress toward the expectation)
Feed-Forward: Explanation of the target status based on the actual status (providing information to students about “Where to next” in their learning).
3. When Co-Construction takes place, learners engage in “feed-up” in order to determine where they are currently in their learning compared to the expectation.
Once they have clarity about where they stand, they can then engage more deeply in “feedback” and “feed-forward.”
4. In addition, by Co-Constructing Success Criteria, students also report an increased desire to engage in learning and taking positive risks as well as a decreased level of anxiety about what is expected (Hattie & Donoghue, 2016).
Therefore, students are more engaged, more willing to do what it takes in the classroom, and even more willing to reinvest in future learning.
5. Finally, Co-Constructing Success Criteria allows students to have power over their learning, choose strategies that work best for them, ask for feedback and feed-forward when they're ready, and exert agency over their own learning.
Agency is the power to act (Martin, 2018). How many times have we hoped our students would act, that they would take the opportunities given and run with it?
All of these reasons are compelling, and yet, we need to know how to Co-Construct Success Criteria with students. It’s one thing to say it works and another to make it work.
How and When:
As previously mentioned, Co-Constructing Success Criteria is about developing a shared understanding of what success looks like. To do so, students need models, examples, exemplars, and works-in-progress to think through and evaluate what makes quality work and how work can be improved.
By engaging in such conversations with students, it becomes clear to them what the Success Criteria are, what each criterion means, and what their work will need to include. It is, therefore, critical to ensure students are the ones doing the thinking as they engage in this practice.
Our job, as teachers, is to gather the necessary materials, be prepared to ask probing questions, and think through ways to continue to co-construct what success looks like over time.
What follows is a simple planning tool to think through when and how the practice can be used in the classroom.
Co-Constructing Success Criteria is a linchpin practice, as it encourages and allows for so many other high-impact strategies to grow in the classroom.
However, the question often raised is, “When is there time for this in my instruction?” When we think about the need for learners to do the thinking and doing in the classroom, rather than teachers, it becomes necessary that students have clarity about the learning expectations.
In addition, we often take the time to reteach, intervene, and remediate. What if, instead of using the time to reteach, we spent time Co-Constructing Success Criteria and found that we had much less need to reteach? It might sound too simple, but Co-Constructing Success Criteria presents itself as a powerful catalyst for learning and has been proven to speed up the learning process.
To be immersed in deep learning is an empowering experience, and Co-Construction of Success Criteria allows learners to move from being knee-deep in trying to determine expectations to being knee-deep in growing their brains. Roll your pant legs up, dip your toe in, heck, jump in head first! The water is warm and the experience meaningful.
Almarode, J. & Vandas, K. (2018). Clarity for learning: Five essential practices that empower students and teachers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Bloomberg, P., Pitchford, B., & Vandas, K. (2019). Peer power: Unite, learn, prosper, activate an assessment revolution. San Diego, CA: Mimi & Todd Press.
Clarke, S. (2008). Active Learning through Formative Assessment. London, UK: Hodder Education.
Hattie, J. A. & Donoghue, G. M. (2016, August 10). Learning strategies: A synthesis and conceptual model. Nature/NPJ: Science of Learning. doi:10.1038/npjscilearn.2016.13
Spencer, J. What is Metacognition? August 10, 2018,
Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020, January). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology. Volume 10, Article 3087.
As a consultant, Kara Vandas works with districts and schools around the country to implement processes and practices that best support student learning. She is the co-author ofPartnering with Students: Building Ownership of Learning andPeer Power: Unite, Learn, Prosper. Her areas of focus include implementing practices that encourage students to be partners in learning, the Visible Learning research and professional learning, EmpowerED Coaching™, EmpowerED Assessment™ and EmpowerED curriculum design™.