As an instructional coach, I collaborate with nearly 65 teachers at an urban high school. My goal is to support teachers of many subjects in embedding literacy in their lessons without disrupting their classroom objectives.
I often work with our novice teachers and student teachers by reviewing their lesson plans and recommending literacy skills that reinforce their learning intentions and success criteria, which are defined by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey as “what you want students to know and be able to do by the end of one or more lessons.” Without learning intentions and success criteria, they write, “lessons wander and students become confused and frustrated.”
When I ask new teachers to tell me the purpose of their lessons, they often describe the activities they’ve created. For example, recently I was collaborating with a student teacher who was eager to teach the Bill of Rights to her freshmen. She began our conversation by explaining that she was going to read real-life scenarios with differing perspectives and ask students to move to the front of the classroom if they agreed with a particular scenario or to the back of the classroom if they disagreed. Afterward, she would ask students to explain their decisions.
Her excitement was palpable. She showed me the scenarios she had written, the “Agree” and “Disagree” signs she had created, and the worksheet she had designed so that students could brainstorm their own Bill of Rights.
When she finished, I commended her on the work she had done. Clearly, she had thought about the activity in detail. Next I asked her about the point of the lesson—what she wanted students to get out of it.
What she wanted—for her students to know what the Bill of Rights is, where to find it, why it’s important, and why we still need it today—was not actually conveyed by the activity. She hadn’t written a learning intention and the accompanying success criteria yet because she had been so excited to refine her activity. Without them, however, all she had was an activity—one that was not aligned with her goals for the day.
Learning Intentions and Success Criteria
Crafting a quality learning intention takes planning. Often, teachers will use an activity as their learning intention—but a learning intention goes beyond an activity. It focuses on the goal of the learning—the thing we want our students to know and do. The learning intention helps students stay focused and involved.
It’s important to create the learning intention first, and then determine the success criteria that students can use to assess their understanding—and then create the activity and some open-ended questions that help students learn.
When I was working with the teacher on her Bill of Rights lesson, we took a step back to develop the learning intention and its success criteria. The learning intention was this: “I can explain the Bill of Rights, its purpose, and its relevance to my life.” The success criteria were built around students’ ability to annotate and paraphrase the Bill of Rights, and to explain its importance, both in general and in their own lives. Annotating, paraphrasing, and analyzing are skills that are based on ACT College and Career Readiness Standards and Common Core State Standards, and they could be seamlessly incorporated into the lesson with minimal effort.
Learning intentions and success criteria are valuable across all subjects. In algebra, for example, a learning intention might be “I can understand the structure of a coordinate grid and relate the procedure of plotting points in quadrants to the structure of a coordinate grid.” The success criteria for this intention could be that students can talk and write about that procedure, using the correct vocabulary; that they can plot and label points in each quadrant on a coordinate grid; and that they can create a rule about coordinates for each quadrant.
In environmental science, if the learning intention is “I can recognize the history, interactions, and trends of climate change,” the success criteria could be that students are able to locate credible research about the history of climate change and share their research with their peers, that they can demonstrate the interactions of climate change and explain the value of those interactions, and that they can show the trends of climate change utilizing a graph and explain the value of the trends.
A Way to Focus Lesson Planning
Although engaging students in their learning is certainly necessary, the student teacher I was working with became acutely aware of the value of the skills she was attempting to help students develop and why those skills—not the activity—should drive instruction.
During her next class, she posted the learning intention and success criteria where students could readily see them. Next, she asked her students to paraphrase the success criteria, making sure they understood what they were about to do. She referred to the learning intention and success criteria several times throughout the lesson so that students could determine their own level of understanding and, if necessary, decide which skills they understood and which ones still needed support. She followed up with an exit ticket, asking students what they had learned in the lesson, how they learned it, and why learning it was important.
No matter what subject you teach, as you plan your instruction, ask yourself these questions:
- What do you want your students to know? Why is that important?
- Can they learn this information another way? How?
Only once you’ve thought though your answers should you begin writing your learning intention and success criteria. Keep the activities you’ve created—but don’t make them the center of the lesson or the goal of the lesson. Spend your time designing a learning intention and success criteria that will support your students’ learning and skills that they can apply to all facets of their academic life.