Learning Intentions and Success Criteria Support Student-Centered Learning in Science
This topic is not exciting.
It is not innovative.
And, perhaps most importantly and contrary to what you might be thinking right now, it is not just standards.
Learning intentions and success criteria are the glue that holds together all the other elements of my framework for preparing student-centered lesson plans in science. Though I introduce them to students only after I’ve achieved activation of prior knowledge from Review & Preview, they are the very first piece I prepare as I begin to plan a new lesson. The act of defining each lesson’s learning intentions and success criteria serves as a springboard that launches me into true backward design.
Why Prepare Clear Learning Intentions and Success Criteria for Every Lesson?
Many of the five elements in the framework I use to plan my lessons were not part of my routine in years past. But, simple as it is, the addition of learning intentions and success criteria might, in fact, be the most profound addition I’ve made. The suggestion for their use came entirely from a text that I just love, love, love: Visible Learning for Science, What Works to Optimize Student Learning by John Almarode, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie. While I’ve spent much of season one on my podcast and several of my pillar blog posts highlighting the most profound messages I extracted from that book, I’ve saved some golden nuggets for context-based discussions like this one.
Through his countless meta-analyses of educational studies, John Hattie was able to define and assign effect sizes to various instructional strategies, claiming that they all work when used at the appropriate time. According to the authors, instructional strategies with an effect size of 0.40 are acceptable and suggest that a year worth of learning could be achieved, while larger effect sizes produce learning gains beyond one year.
The year I made the switch to student-centered learning, I was aiming to increase the rigor in my classroom while nurturing growth mindset, so I was particularly interested in the effect sizes the Visible Learning authors reported for expectations. In the text, teacher expectations are reported to have an effect size of 0.4, while teacher clarity is listed with an effect size of 0.75. I learned that clearly conveying my expectations to students is nearly twice as effective or impactful as simply holding those expectations as goals for any given lesson, day, student, or group! For me, this was a profound message. We can have the very best intentions as teachers who plan and deliver lessons, but if we don’t communicate those intentions well, we can’t possibly capitalize on that next critical piece: student expectations of themselves.
How Learning Intentions and Success Criteria Fuel Student Achievement
The effect size for instilling strong expectations in students for their own achievement is a whopping 1.44! According to the authors, this not-so-simple mindset shift has the power to propel students to accomplish three years’ worth of learning!
Now, of course there are students who inherently hold high expectations for themselves. But, when we’re planning a lesson with specific content and specific skills that need to be mastered, we need to consider that our students’ expectations of their performance with that specific content and those specific skills will play a role in their outcomes. We’ve all most certainly met the student who has labeled themself the “artsy” type or the “math and science” type, believing themselves to have a natural inclination to doing only one of those things well. This is a student who may be positively impacted by the clarity teachers can provide when they use well-crafted learning intentions and success criteria to set the stage for learning as they define what students need to do during the lesson, why they need to do it, and how they’ll demonstrate they’ve learned it.
Preparing Clear, Meaningful Learning Intentions
Clearly articulating the learning goals of a lesson has an effect size of 0.50 according to the authors of Visible Learning. You probably already write down or somehow express learning goals for each lesson. I had been doing that for years when I modified my approach to adopt this practice. Sometimes I shared a list of big ideas, or I presented an essential question. Other times – depending on what was being requested by my administration in any given year – I’d outline the standards that guided development of the lesson. So, if you’re already doing this, you’re halfway there!
In Pennsylvania, we haven’t yet adopted the use of Next Generation Science Standards, so I use state standards to guide preparation of my lessons. These standards are fairly clear to someone who knows and understands chemistry content. But, for a student who has no prior knowledge of the topics, they could create more confusion than clarity. Clarity of the goals is what we’re really after, though. We need to thoughtfully consider how well the students are receiving and understanding that statement or question or bulleted list we’re presenting to them. This is where our professional expertise will really be put to the test and shine through! If we know our content and we know how to read and interpret standards, we can decipher them and transform them into valuable guidelines for learning our students can use as they actively engage in and direct their own learning.
If your administration requires you to post the standards for each lesson, you should do that. Just know that every instructional strategy can be altered to fit nicely into any required lesson plan format or guidance you’re provided by your principal and your district. For years at my school, teachers were required to display the standard at the beginning of our lesson. I never agreed with it. I truly felt it did more to confuse students than help them. No one ever bothered to explain how it was a best practice. So, when I learned about the value of conveying clear learning intentions and success criteria, I relegated the standards to a corner of my display just to satisfy the requirement but made more prominent that which would be more impactful.
I’d encourage teachers to consider learning intentions as answers to the following questions:
1) What will students learn?
2) Why will they learn it?
Answers to both these questions might come from the standards. If you’re teaching a cumulative course like chemistry or physics or math or if you’re teaching a series of very closely-related content, the reason students need to learn content on Monday may very well be so they are able to be successful with content introduced on Tuesday. In these cases, the learning intentions might be the same for each day in the series.
There is a series of lessons in my chemical bonding unit which includes teaching the skill of
drawing and interpreting Lewis structures which leads to understanding and assigning three-dimensional shapes using VSEPR theory. Having knowledge of molecule shapes allows students to evaluate molecule polarity once electronegativity and bond polarity have been introduced. Ultimately, the goal of teaching all these lessons is to provide students with the content and skills necessary to explain intermolecular forces and the like-dissolves-like principle. When students understand and can explain or illustrate that concept, they’ve answered a big question for the entire unit: “Why do covalent compounds have such inconsistent physical properties?”.
This example quite perfectly illustrates the possible need for repetitive learning intentions.
Finally, when presenting learning intentions to students, I’ve adopted the following format: “Today I am learning ____________________, so I can _________.”
I usually have no trouble succinctly completing the first portion to describe what students will learn or learn to do each day; it usually matches the title of my lesson. But the “so I can” is usually followed by a short, bulleted list because my lessons are rarely one-dimensional if only based solely on the cumulative nature of the content. Both the content and purpose of my lesson are included in the bullet points of “so I can”.
Preparing Success Criteria To Complement Learning Intentions
The authors of Visible Learning write, “most critically, the learning intention should demonstrably lead to the criteria of success”. It’s through the use of success criteria that we inform students what they need to do, which tasks they will complete or will be able to complete once they’ve accomplished the learning intentions or as they work through activities related to the learning intentions. Remember, a truly interactive science lesson planned for student-centered learning will foster our students’ ability to be active in their learning, be capable of planning next steps, and be able to use feedback. A list of success criteria supports those tenants by prompting students to do something with the knowledge, concepts, or content we’re sharing. Further, it might provide or support student choice or differentiation. And, finally, a defined list of success criteria supports student-centered learning by helping to focus our individualized, real-time feedback on the clear learning intentions we’ve prepared.
It’s in the success criteria that our depth of knowledge verbs and, as it pertains to my Lab In Every Lesson approach, the scientific method verbs, live: observe, record, analyze, communicate, construct, explain, describe, list, calculate, order, determine, etc. Some of these success criteria verbs will also reflect the skills students must hone prior to completing summative assessments, so they should tie directly into necessary skill practice as well. In my practice, the success criteria serves both these purposes. They outline what students will do during class time as they work toward accomplishing the learning intentions. They also describe what students will do on quizzes and tests, because the final element in each of my lessons requires that they practice those skills during class time. In this way, I found that creating the daily success criteria list was very helpful in preparing unit reviews prior to unit tests. I would merely copy and paste all the success criteria from each lesson in the unit and then remove only those skills that pertained to specific activities we might have completed during class, usually those focused on building skills related to practicing the scientific method, which wouldn’t be represented on the standardized test. Then, I could share that list with students to serve as a comprehensive list from which they would study and practice to prepare for each exam.
When presenting success criteria to students, I do so side-by-side the outlined learning intentions in the following format: “I’ll know I’m successful when . . .” followed by a bulleted list.
Often this bulleted list is much longer than my learning intention list. Remember – my goal is to keep students active and engaged in their learning. They should be doing a lot to learn only a few things deeply and completely.
Learning Intentions and Success Criteria Should Include Disciplinary Literacy
The very first lesson I teach in my year-long chemistry course is entitled, “Why Study Chemistry In High School?”. I’m not really sure if there is a standard associated with this content. It is important to me, though, to address what every student might be thinking to themselves, “Why do I need to take chemistry anyway?!”. My purpose in teaching this lesson is to provide an introduction or overview of the course content and the foundation I will use to spiral concepts throughout the course. Here’s my list of learning intentions and success criteria for that lesson:
Today I am learning about the scope of chemistry as a discipline so I can:
talk like a chemist!
understand the type of information I’ll be learning in this class.
recognize how chemistry impacts society.
I’ll know I’m successful when I can:
define terms on the Word Wall.
match different types of chemistry to their uses.
explain how chemistry is critical to medicine, agriculture, material development, and the environment.
Let’s take a moment to dissect this.
The lesson title or topic, the “scope of chemistry as a discipline” is included in my opening statement of the learning intention: "Today I am learning about the scope of chemistry as a discipline so I can ..." The reasons for learning this are listed beneath that opening statement. The first of those reasons is an intention you’ll see listed in nearly every one of my lessons. If there’s new vocabulary for me to introduce, this “talk like a chemist” piece is always on my intention list because to talk, read, and write like a chemist are disciplinary literacy skills outlined in the common core literacy standards for my state. The inclusion of that intention lets students know that they’ll be writing, they’ll be talking, and/or they’ll be reading some new language with which they probably aren’t yet familiar. I firmly believe this should be in everyone’s learning intention list all the time, no matter the science course being taught because each content area offers its own specific, deliberate vocabulary. If our goal as educators is to teach students how to think rather than what to think so they are able to make informed decisions in the real world, teaching them to expect, decipher, and use sophisticated or contextual terminology in any specific area will prove valuable.
Learning Intentions and Success Criteria Might Be Complementary
I want students to realize that the learning intentions and success criteria I provide really do match and reflect accurately my expectations for them during each class period. I strongly believe that the grace I extend to them in the early days of our relationship and the consistency I reinforce through delivery of my interactive science lesson plans and student-centered instructional approach does work wonders toward building mutual trust and respect in the classroom.
In the last example I provided, did you notice that the very first bullet point of my success criteria list complemented the first bullet point of my learning intention list?
“Today I’m learning about the scope of chemistry so I can talk like a chemist" is achieved by “I’ll know I’m successful when I can define terms from the Word Wall”.
In this lesson, specifically, they go on to continue complementing one another. There are three bullet points for learning intentions and thre