What do we mean by “student success,” and what does that mean for school design?

Most traditional schools emphasize broad coverage of academic content and define student success as basic proficiency or credit completion. Modern schools are designed to equip all students with a broad set of knowledge, competencies and dispositions to succeed in college, career and life. What does this new definition of student success look like?

  • Student success includes academic knowledge in a broad set of areas like math, english language and literacy, natural sciences, social sciences, the arts and technical subjects. Demonstrating academic knowledge does not just mean covering a broad set of standards. It also means developing deep and enduring understanding of key concepts. Enduring understandings connect academic knowledge to the real world and to future learning.
  • Student success includes transferable skills that enable students to solve problems and complete complex tasks. These skills include critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, collaboration. These may be referred to as higher order skills or 21st century skills.
  • Student success includes lifelong learning skills that prepare students to be independent learners and happy, self-sufficient adults. These include healthy development, social emotional skills, growth mindset, perseverance, and self-direction. These are sometimes called intrapersonal skills, student agency or non-cognitive skills.

When schools are designed to achieve these student outcomes, you can see them reflected in all parts of a school’s day to day operations. Specifically:


  • Content. Learning experiences do not just cover standards, they promote deep learning. Students have opportunities to learn about, practice, and develop transferable skills and lifelong learning skills just like they do academic content.
  • Pedagogy. Pedagogy ensures that students are doing most of the work. The “cognitive lift” is with the student to promote agency and higher-order thinking.
  • Assessment. Students have opportunities to demonstrate learning in ways that show deep understanding and application, like performance-based assessment. Students are asked to demonstrate transferable and lifelong learning skills, just like they do academic content.
  • Student supports. Students are socially and emotionally supported. Schools use trauma-informed practices. Advisement, mentorship, and other supports promote positive and healthy development.
  • Teacher development. Teachers have opportunities to develop and hone the skills needed to support expanded student outcomes. They are supported as they shift their instruction and deepen their practice.


Questions to Consider

  • How does your school or district currently define student success?
  • To what extent to students in your school or district have opportunities to develop deep academic knowledge?
  • To what extent to students in your school or district have opportunities to develop transferable learning skills?
  • To what extent to students in your school or district have opportunities to develop lifelong learning skills?
  • What would it look like for your school or district to promote this extended definition of success? How would you “see” it in day to day practice?


  • Transcend’s Defining Graduate Aims and Graduate Aims Database will save you time in thinking about the desired outcomes for your students. It’s research-based so a good starting point.
  • There are many different ways of thinking about lifelong learning. I start with the learn-to-learn skills outline in Building Blocks for Learning. You can also think about the different habits of success that students need to develop over time.
  • Portrait of a Graduate can give you lots of ideas. Remember, its what you do with the portrait of a graduate that matters, not just creating a great looking poster.