Reflecting Back, Moving Forward: Enacting AfL means changing the roles of educators and students (Part 4)

Research and experience show that assessment for learning (AfL) can have a significant positive impact on learning. Notice we said “can”. It’s not enough to simply change your practice to include learning goals, success criteria, descriptive feedback, self and peer assessment, and goal-setting. These practices only have their full impact when they are enacted in a context where learners have the agency to make decisions about learning, and the support to develop the skills to make those decisions effectively.

Part 3 of this series identified some of the significant benefits of student ‘agency’, the capacity to act independently and to make our own choices. In terms of assessment and instruction, we like the definition set out by Margaret Heritage: students’ agency refers to “their making judgements about their own learning and deciding on their own, or in collaboration with the teacher and peers, the action they need to take to move learning forward” (Heritage, 2013, p. 26). A learner’s agency is determined by the educator’s willingness to share decision-making power with the student.

“A recurring paradox in the contemporary K-12 classroom is that, although students educationally and developmentally benefit when teachers support their autonomy, teachers are often controlling during instruction.” (Reeve, 2009, p. 159)

Reeve talks about supporting learners’ autonomy. Autonomy is related to agency but is not the same. A learner can have agency in a learning situation, if the educator is willing to encourage students to make decisions about their learning. One way educators do this is by giving learners choice in how they learn, and how they demonstrate their learning. However, even with choices, not all learners are motivated to learn.

Autonomous learners “possess goals which are generated from within rather than adopted from other agents [students, educators, parents]”. In other words, autonomous learners are internally motivated. Further, they have the means to evaluate the effects of their actions toward achieving their goals (Luck & d’Inverno, 1995, p. 256, 258).

Research has shown that motivation is related to whether students have opportunities to make important academic choices (American Psychological Association). However, in keeping with the above definition, learners also need to know how to assess their decisions – and there is the connection to assessment for learning. The practices of AfL are intended to teach learners how to monitor their learning, make improvements and set goals. In many classrooms we have observed, educators get “stuck” at identifying and sharing learning goals and success criteria. The plain fact of the matter is, if you don’t reach the stage where learners have the agency and the autonomy to use those tools for themselves, they will most likely not reap the powerful benefits of assessment for learning.

Let’s look at one of the AfL practices, and see what it might look like when it is used in an autonomy-supportive context:

Identifying, sharing and clarifying learning goals 

In many classrooms where educators have adopted AfL, the learning goal is shared daily. This may involve the educator displaying the goal on the board or on chart paper. Often students are instructed to copy the goal into a notebook, an organizer, or a digital record. Learners may be asked to read the learning goal silently, out loud, or in chorus. Then the lesson progresses. With respect to understanding the learning goals, learners are passive in this scenario, and educator control is high.

There are several researchers, experts and practitioners who have noted the ineffectiveness of this approach. Melanie Ralph, in her blog, laments, “it is worth critically examining whether the practice of telling students what they will learn before they learn it equates to the kind of deeper learning that will allow students to thrive in a rapidly changing 21st century job market”.

What might sharing the learning goals look like in a context where the educator supports learner autonomy?

The educator has ‘unpacked’ the curriculum expectations when planning for the learning. In class, the educator begins with an activity or question that piques learners’ interests or entices them to wonder or question. Subsequently, he shares the curriculum expectation, then asks, “What do you think this means? What knowledge or skill do you think is involved? What do you already know about this, and what are you wondering about, or what don’t you understand?”

Students are given time to think, pair, and share their thoughts. As they contribute their ideas and wonderings, the educator records them in the form of a mind map. This map is dynamic, growing, and changing over the next few weeks as the learning progresses. The mind map is revisited as needed, replacing the daily sharing of a learning goal. Whereas daily goals may appear to learners to be disconnected, discrete concepts, helping learners to organize the goals into a mind map shows them how each day’s learning is connected. Further, as the mind map is a record of the daily learning, students see it as a record of their deepening understanding, and also a way to assess which concepts and/or skills they may still need to focus on.

How can my students be autonomous learners when the curriculum specifies what they are to learn?

In Ontario, as in many jurisdictions, there is a curriculum that sets out the knowledge and skills that are to be learned. Even so, there is still room for learner agency and autonomy. In the above example of sharing and clarifying the learning goal, the educator and the learners collaborate to deconstruct the knowledge and skills embedded in the curriculum. Further, they together decide on the language used to express the learning goals, and how they see the connections between discrete goals.

running-297154_1280One last thought – and a call to action:  We can’t be more clear or insistent: If you want your students to benefit from your efforts, you need to use the full spectrum of the AfL practices, in a context where learners are supported to have agency and autonomy. In other words, implementation matters!

Heritage, M. (2013). Formative Assessment in Practice: A Process of Inquiry and Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Luck, M. & d’Inverno, M. (1995). A formal framework for agency and autonomy. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Multiagent Systems. ICMAS. AAAI, pp. 254-260. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bccc/5e75388ec4066280c839a10840ed795389d9.pdf?_ga=2.130494474.4656619.1547228291-1948821092.1547228291

McCombs, B. Developing Responsible and Autonomous Learners: A Key to Motivating Students. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education/k12/learners.aspx

Ralph, M. (2019, January 4). Old habits die hard: How learning goals can stifle deeper learning. Retrieved from https://lustreeducation.wordpress.com/2019/01/04/360/

Reeve, J. (2009). Why teachers adopt a controlling motivating style toward students and how they can become more autonomy supportive. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), pp.159–175.

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