Assessment criteria are increasingly incorporated into teaching, making it important to clarify the pedagogic status of the qualities to which they refer. We reviewed theory and evidence about the extent to which four core criteria for student writing-critical thinking, use of language, structuring, and argument-refer to the outcomes of three types of learning: generic skills learning, a deep approach to learning, and complex learning. The analysis showed that all four of the core criteria describe to some extent properties of text resulting from using skills, but none qualify fully as descriptions of the outcomes of applying generic skills. Most also describe certain aspects of the outcomes of taking a deep approach to learning. Critical thinking and argument correspond most closely to the outcomes of complex learning. At lower levels of performance, use of language and structuring describe the outcomes of applying transferable skills. At higher levels of performance, they describe the outcomes of taking a deep approach to learning. We propose that the type of learning required to meet the core criteria is most usefully and accurately conceptualized as the learning of complex skills, and that this provides a conceptual framework for maximizing the benefits of using assessment criteria as part of teaching. © 2006 Taylor & Francis.