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Learning Targets & Success Criteria

  • by Kelly Harmon & Randi Anderson
  • Sept. 27, 2018, 9:35 a.m.

There are two questions that kick off most professional learning community (PLC) meetings.

  1. What do we expect students to learn? What are the focus standards? What are the daily learning targets?
  2. How will we know if they have learned? What are the success criteria for demonstrating the learning?


While learning targets of some type are found on the boards in most classrooms these days, success criteria is often not seen. The learning target alone will not be enough for many students to hit the target. Without knowing what hitting the target looks and sounds like, many students will fall short of the goal.


Learning targets come from standards. We unpack the standard into lesson-size chunks called learning targets that will scaffold students up the standard. These statements tell students what the learning intention is for the lesson. They should reflect the intent, or part of the intent, of the standard. They include a verb plus an action statement. We can word them using a sentence stem like "I can..." or "We will..." We want students see themselves in the target. The verb and action statement in the target statement should help students know the level of mental processing (retrieval, comprehension, analysis, or knowledge utilization) needed to achieve the target. Learning targets should never include a specific task or product, such as "graphic organizer" unless it is explicitly stated in the state standard.


Success criteria are the thought processes that need to be used to successfully demonstrate the thinking demanded by the learning target. The criteria for learning guides the students' thinking as they work on questions, products, or performances. It helps them to determine what success looks and sounds like, so they can gauge their own learning progress.


For example, the success criteria for an expository text summary is:


  1. Includes main ideas and key details from each paragraph or text section
  2. Does not repeat ideas
  3. Free of the reader's opinion or prior knowledge

The learner should be able to use the success criteria to evaluate their summary. They should be able to defend the ideas they included and determine if extraneous information is present.

Notice these reflect thought processes needed to produce a summary. The thinking for this learning target is at the comprehension level as a summary should represent the author's ideas. Also, there aren't any specific demands on how long the summary should be or the format it should take. If this information were included, it would be a rubric for scoring a specific product. Success criteria should be able to be used to complete any product that requires a summary.


Sometimes it helps to think of these thought processes as questions one might ask to ensure they are thinking successfully. For example, if the learning target is "I can write a friendly letter" I might want to think like a successful writer and begin by generating questions I would ask myself throughout the writing process.


  1. What is my message to the reader? 
  2. Who is my audience?
  3. What words can I use to express my message?
  4. How will I begin my letter? 
  5. What ideas will I include in the body of the letter?
  6. How will I end my letter?

These questions can be used as success criteria for any writing task.


I avoid being product specific by saying "What words can I use to express friendship?" Not all letters will have this message.


Once I have questions to ask myself, I can then turn them into statements for the success criteria.


  • Establish the purpose for the letter.
  • Identify what the audience already knows and needs to know.
  • Use specific words to express my message.
  • Include the all parts of a friendly letter.
  • Use correct letter format punctuation.


The only way to know if the success criteria is correct, is for students to be able to use it to guide and evaluate their work. It should help them think about their thinking. It will tell them how they will demonstrate the learning target, without telling them how to create a specific product or performance.


Remember, there is a fine line between the success criteria and the task or question. The success criteria gives students the procedural knowledge (mental process) to use as they answer the question or complete the task. You can't hit the target if you can't see or hear it clearly. Don't forget the success criteria!


Watch a video of success criteria in action!



Kelly Harmon and Randi Anderson

About The Authors

Kelly Harmon & Associates began in 2001 with a mission of instructional coaching and providing rich literacy resources for educators and parents. Our work incorporates research-based best practices for teaching and learning.

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