George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

3 Strategies for Setting Up Rigorous Expectations With Students

Explaining the criteria for successful learning at the surface, deep, and transfer levels puts students in a better position to meet benchmarks.

January 7, 2022
Middle school science class
Spencer Grant / Art Directors / Alamy Stock Photo

In a seventh-grade science class, students are working together to create a shared definition of rigor. A PowerPoint slide is illuminated on the wall with the following three expectations:

1. Define proportional relationship, multistep problems, ratios, and percentages.

2. Compare and contrast ratio and percentage problems.

3. Generalize the importance of proportional relationships when solving multiple problems across contexts.

The teacher asks the students to match each bullet to the following levels of complexity:

  • “I know things, but I don’t know how to relate things.” (Surface)
  • “I can relate things.” (Deep)
  • “I can transfer my understanding of things to other situations.” (Transfer)

Students don’t take much time going through this exercise. The teacher shared that number one is related to surface knowledge, two is related to deep knowledge, and three is related to transfer knowledge.

Next, the teacher asks, “Which level is most important to you, your teacher, and your parents?” Students universally state that surface learning is of most value and deep-to-transfer levels are what we do when there is extra time. One student shares the metaphor that the surface is like the vegetables, and deep to transfer is like dessert. When asked what we should do about it, the students agree that a well-balanced meal is probably the best for our learning diet.

A Definition of Rigor

Rigor may be best defined as the equal intensity and integration of surface, deep, and transfer learning. That is, knowing things, relating things, and applying things are all important, and rigor is the balance between these three levels. No one level is more important than the other. Transfer is not an “A” level, like more surface knowledge is not an “A” level.

Being able to connect surface, deep, and transfer is the goal. Ultimately we seek balance across all levels. While many of us desire students to transfer their learning, the need to understand the content and skills they are transferring (surface) and how they connect together to form underlying principles or practices (deep learning) is equally important.

Our students, however, realize that this balance is askew in many classrooms. In innovative classrooms, the scale is tipped to transfer; and in traditional classrooms, surface learning is the currency. While there are many strategies we can engage in to create balance across levels of complexity, ensuring success criteria that meet each level of clarity is a great way to start the work.

Leveled-Success Criteria 

Success criteria may be best defined as the learning expectations that teachers require of students to meet the state or national learning standard. Success criteria are the “how” to be successful, and learning intentions or standards are the “what” to learn. If we were baking a cake, the recipe would be the criteria, and the cake would be the goal.

Teachers often embed success criteria into rubrics. Each bullet is a metric to achieve on the way to successfully accomplish the unit goal.

Leveled-success criteria present each bulleted item across levels of complexity to illustrate to students the expectations at surface, deep, and transfer learning.

3 Strategies to Promote the Use of Leveled-Success Criteria

1. Word choice. Use verbs associated with surface, deep, and transfer levels of learning to build learning intentions and success criteria. When designing learning intentions, teachers should consider using transfer-level verbs. Transfer verbs include formulate, apply, generate, and hypothesize.

When designing success criteria, teachers may want to separate the criteria into different complexity-level expectations.

Learning intention: I will apply proportional relationships to solve and interpret multistep ratio and percent problems.

Surface: I will be successful when I...

  • define proportional relationship, multistep problems, ratios, and percentages
  • solve single-step ratio problems
  • solve multistep ratio problems
  • solve single-step percentage problems
  • solve multistep percentage problems

Deep: I will be successful when I…

  • compare and contrast ratio and percentage problems
  • predict and solve proportional-relationship problems
  • assess strategy and solution of oneself and others in solving multistep ratio and percentage problems
  • solve nonroutine proportional-relationship problems

Transfer: I will be successful when I…

  • generalize the importance of proportional relationships when solving multiple problems across contexts
  • evaluate the work of others and present suggested next steps to improve
  • hypothesize other situations that require solving and interpreting ratio and percent problems

2. Separate contexts from the learning intentions. In the seventh-grade example mentioned previously, students are expected to use proportional relationships to solve multistep ratio and percent problems. Notice how the transfer-level success criteria state that students must apply their learning in different situations, but the criteria do not state the specific situations that students need to apply their learning.

There are two key reasons for omitting the specific situation(s):

  • Students will focus their mental energy on the actual standards that need to be learned rather than the context in which they are learning to apply their knowledge.
  • Students will not fixate on one situation but rather will see that there are multiple situations in which the core content can be applied. This will enable a greater probability of transfer-level thinking.

One suggestion to put this idea into practice is to brainstorm a number of contexts that students may encounter at the transfer level and share those with students outside the rubric. Examples of contexts for students in the seventh-grade class include simple interest and tax, along with markups and markdowns. A teacher may create these contexts and share them with students throughout their lesson.

3.  Keep tasks or activities outside of the success criteria. Similar to excluding contexts, success criteria should anchor student expectations to what they need to learn through a task rather than the tasks they are expected to complete. Tasks may include worksheets, group projects, PowerPoints, posters, podcasts, etc. Keeping tasks outside of the success criteria enables students to focus on what they need to learn and assists students in giving and receiving accurate feedback to each other on what is expected for students to learn at all levels of complexity.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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