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The benefits of outlining learning intentions and success criteria

By Sarah-Eleni Zaferis on 15 January 2023NSWstaffroomUKstaffroomTeaching strategies

As teachers, we tell students what they are learning every lesson, more than likely multiple times. However, setting clear learning intentions and articulating them to students, along with the relevant success criteria is an entirely different concept.

This approach is a high impact teaching strategy that shows students what they need to understand and how to complete each task as well as clarifying what success looks like.

In this article, we unpack what learning intentions and success criteria are, why they are beneficial for students (and teachers), and share some examples for easy and effective implementation.

Defining learning intentions and success criteria

A learning intention clearly outlines what the teacher wants the students to know, understand and be able to accomplish as a direct result of  planned teaching and learning activities. These intentions are often linked to multiple learning outcomes and can help centre student focus¹. It is very important to note that it is not about the task students are going to complete, the sole focus should be on the learning².

Students should then also be exposed to the success criteria, which clearly describes what achievement looks like and often helps both educators and learners make informed judgements on the quality of learning³. The success criteria must be planned in advance and clearly linked to the learning intention¹. This way students have a strong understanding of what they need to be striving towards.

It is important to note that many teachers can feel the burden of setting up success criteria as it sounds like a huge increase in marking. While we will talk about implementation later in the article, teachers should encourage students to take ownership of their learning and responsibility for checking and using the success criteria provided². This way teachers are not bombarded with additional marking—something they definitely do not need.

The benefits of learning intentions and success criteria

Educators do not have the time to improve their classroom practice or try new things without knowing what the benefits are for both students and teachers. So let’s dive into two of the main reasons you would want to implement these strategies.

Quality of work improves

Hattie and Donoghue's⁴ meta-analysis found that the use of learning intentions and success criteria had an above-average effect on the impact of student attainment. In particular, some research has found that not only student understanding increased but the overall quality of work as well⁵. This is half the battle in the classroom, encouraging students to put in as much detail and effort as possible to every task they are presented with.

In addition, when learners know what success looks like for each lesson they are more likely to reflect, plan and aspire to achieve⁶. Simply put, students know what they need to do and how to get there so there is very little wiggle room for arguing they didn’t understand the task or what was required of them to complete it successfully.

Feedback becomes more efficient and effective

If students have access to the success criteria they can consistently self-reflect and self-mark their work. Research has shown that by providing students with learning goals and success criteria, more tailored formative feedback is given within a lesson as well as an increase in self-reflective practices⁵. This means that students are taking more responsibility for their learning and shifting into a far more active role , which is a skill we want to develop in students from a young age. This is so that when they reach their final years of schooling, and beyond, they are less reliant on others for validation.

Furthermore, by encouraging students to do this themselves you can reduce the marking burden on teachers as they are not required to mark or provide individual feedback for every student each lesson. This is a big win.


Classroom implementation

Learning intentions

The biggest tip for creating learning intentions is to keep reminding yourself that is it not about the task students are going to complete, but what you want them to learn and understand. By using this mentality the task itself becomes irrelevant and can change. This is so important because the classroom is full of disruptions and distractions. From swimming carnivals to staff shortages and student absences, we sometimes need to accept that an originally planned task is not going to work.

So, by taking some time to sit down with the scope and sequence, teachers can identify what they want students to learn throughout a lesson (or series of lessons) and focus on what matters: the student takeaway. This is also time effective as it allows you to plan in advance and over a period of time.

Another suggestion is to narrow the learning focus. Often we give students too much to tackle in one lesson. If you are struggling to write down what students should be learning, it may be that there is too much there for them, and you, to focus on. By breaking it down into small manageable chunks, not only will the focus be more clear, but teachers can articulate it far more easily to students.

Finally, in those moments where getting around to setting up some learning intentions was not possible, you can always lean on digital resources that are pre-prepared, such as Atomi. These resources have clear learning goals for each video lesson and direct student focus to the outcome at hand.


Tip!

This is a great opportunity to differentiate your lesson by providing tiered learning intentions and success criteria. You can articulate this using a colour system or providing different wording choices such as “all, most and some”. You may also have individual learning goals for some or all of your students depending on the needs of your classroom. For more information on differentiation check out our simple guide to differentiated teaching.


Success criteria

The easiest way to implement success criteria effectively is to show students what success looks like. For example, if students are working on a maths problem, show them the answer and then have them work out the strategy from there. If you are asking students to create a presentation, show them what a top-mark response looks like, as well as modelling what middle and low-range responses are. By doing so, students can very clearly see what they need to do to be successful and teachers are providing them with the opportunity to be self-reflective and think about the learning process.

To formalise this you can create a success criteria checklist. This would include all of the steps students need to take or include to achieve full marks. For an added benefit, wording these with “I can” statements can help to motivate students and foster a more positive experience⁷.

Take a look at some of the examples below:

Learning Intention

Success criteria 

We are learning about the parts of the atom

I can identify the nucleus, neutrons, protons, electrons and 


I can draw a label diagram of the first 20 elements


I can state the mass and charge of the subatomic particles

We are learning to write a narrative

I can write an opening paragraph that excites my reader


I can entertain my reader


I can use dialoge to add more interest to my story


I can use past tense 


I can use writing conventions (correct spelling and punctuation) to allow my reader to read my story easily

Roberston

Final thoughts

It can be argued by some educators that providing all of this information to students is “cheating” or removes the learning from the classroom². However, if we reframe our thinking and focus on what we want students to take away from our lessons, it is clear that providing them with learning intentions and success criteria not only makes the learning more efficient but less daunting.

The classroom can be an overwhelming place for many students who find completing work, staying on task and understanding content challenging. By setting them up for success not only are we getting the most out of them, but motivating them to continue, which in my opinion is a huge victory.


Keen to implement high impact strategies in your classroom? But not sure where to start?

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Sarah-Eleni Zaferis (Bachelor of Education and Science) writes on all things pedagogy, teaching strategies, student and teacher wellbeing. As a high-school educator herself, she is passionate about exploring the ways that educators can put time back in their day while boosting student engagement, motivation, and academic achievement.

References

  1. National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2015
  2. Hattie, J. 2012. Learning intentions and success criteria.
  3. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2022, Learning intentions and success criteria
  4. Hattie, J. and Donoghue, G. 2016. Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model, Science of learning
  5. Obilor, E. 2019. Enhancing students’ learning through assessment for learning and feedback, International journal of innovative psychology and social development
  6. Fisher, D., Frey. N., Amador, O. and Assof, J. 2019, The teacher clarify playbook, Corwin.
  7. The Department of Education and Training, 2022, High impact teaching strategies (HITS), Victorian Government
  8. National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2022, Learning intentions and success criteria
  9. Robertson, B. 2019. A Five Minute Guide To… Learning Intentions & Success Criteria

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