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Involving Students in Constructing the Criteria for Good Writing

By Kim Marshall

The article: “Build It Together: Co-Constructing Success Criteria with Students” by Jennifer Gonzalez and Starr Sackstein in Cult of Pedagogy, April 4, 2021

In this Cult of Pedagogy article, Jennifer Gonzalez says that early in her teaching career, she would spend entire weekends grading papers, writing extensive comments and highlighting strengths and weaknesses on a rubric. Alas, when she returned the papers, “far too many students would look at their grades and feedback like it was written in another language.” It made no difference that Gonzalez had given them a copy of the rubric and gone over her expectations.

Over time, she added two more steps that improved students’ writing – showing models of finished products and getting students to look more closely at the rubric – but there was still something missing. That’s been supplied by author/educator Starr Sackstein in her latest book, Assessing with Respect (ASCD, 2021). The key insight: including students in shaping what will be assessed. “It’s essentially backward planning with students for success,” says Sackstein. “We’re going over an assignment with them, and we’re having a conversation about what it would take to be successful at it.”

Why is it necessary to include students when the teacher – the professional – has well-developed criteria for good student work? Three reasons:

  • Clarity is in the eye of the beholder. “I can have amazing ideas, but sometimes how I communicate them in the assignment doesn’t always come out the way that I think they do in my head,” says Sackstein.
  • Unit planning is improved. Going over the criteria with students, the teacher can get a better sense of what skills students have already mastered and where they need help.
  • Students get more proficient at self-assessing and commenting on classmates’ writing.

Gonzalez and Sackstein say co-constructing success criteria involves four steps, which will take a full class period at first:

Unpack and rewrite the standards. “Kids have to be familiar with the language of the standards,” says Sackstein. They might work in small groups, circling verbs in a standard (usually the skills) and nouns (the concepts) and brainstorming what it might look like when a student masters it. Students might also translate the standard into kid-friendly I can… language and create posters to be displayed around the classroom.

Annotate the assignment. As a new project or learning cycle is launched, students study the prompt, highlighting important words or phrases and writing comments or questions in the margins. The prompt: What would success look like on this assignment?

Study exemplars. Next, students quietly read high-quality examples of completed assignments (teacher-made or by other students) and talk with a partner about which rubric criteria they see in the exemplar. The whole class then shares insights on where in the exemplar the required qualities show up, using the language of the standards. “This step really makes the success criteria come alive,” says Gonzalez, “helping students see exactly what it looks like when a student is meeting the standards well.”

Identify instructional needs. Students then identify specifically where they will need instructional support. This might be done as a whole-class KWL chart, a poll, a Google form, or an exit slip – all valuable information as the teacher plans mini-lessons.

When the unit is finished and students hand in their completed work, says Sackstein, “Give very direct, instructive feedback, and make it an iterative process where student voice is a large part of how we assess them with reflection and self-assessment. The partnership between what’s going on for them as learners and what we’re seeing as educators comes together to help them start to set goals and move on, making progress on their own learning.”

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