Enacting AfL means changing the roles of educators and students (Part 5)

‘Don’t smile until Christmas!” was well-meaning advice given to me many years ago. In my teacher training, and early in my career, I had the feeling that to do well, I was to be ‘in control’ of my classroom and my students at all times. Heaven forbid that the principal might walk by (or in!) and find chaos. As a new teacher, I would seek advice from more experienced staff. Many shared their classroom management practices which were generally helpful. More or less, their practices involved routines, sometimes extrinsic reward systems. Some suggested that a ‘my way or the highway’ approach was the most effective to maintain order.

I soon realized that a highly controlling approach did not fit my personality, and more importantly did not work with some students. When I had my own children, it changed my thinking further, as I considered what a highly-controlled atmosphere was like from their perspective.

In Part 4 of this series of posts, we urged educators to take an ‘autonomy-supportive’ approach to teaching and learning. Research tells us that “students of autonomy-supportive teachers display markedly more positive classroom functioning and educational outcomes than do students of controlling teachers” (Reeve, 2009). Reeve’s research has significant information for successfully implementing AfL.

Controlling and autonomy support are “interpersonal sentiment and behaviour teachers provide during instruction” (Reeve, 2009). When educators use controlling sentiment and behaviour, the aim is to compel learners to act or think in a certain way. Autonomy support, on the other hand, aims to “identify, nurture, and develop students’ inner motivational resources” (Reeve, 2009).

How can we become more autonomy supportive in our approach to teaching and learning?

Reeve suggests three ways to become more autonomy supportive: a) adopt the students’ perspective; b) welcome students’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, even negative ones; and c) support students’ motivational development and capacity for autonomous self-regulation.

There are many aspects of assessment and instruction that are aligned with these three conditions. To illustrate, let’s look at the practice of identifying, sharing and clarifying success criteria.

Identifying, sharing and clarifying success criteria

Many educators have adopted the practice of providing learners the criteria which will be used to assess progress in learning. Practices we have observed include sharing the criteria by posting them on chart paper, on the whiteboard, or in a digital learning tool. The criteria are also shared by embedding them in a checklist or rubric. In each of these cases, the student has a passive role – the educator determines the criteria, with little or no input from the learner. These are examples of implementing the practices of AfL, but not the spirit.

What might sharing the success criteria look like in a context where the educator supports learner autonomy?

Collaboratively identifying the success criteria with students is an example of autonomy-supportive teaching. When collaboratively identifying criteria, both the educator and the students contribute their thinking. The educator’s role is to elicit students’ thinking about what successful learning might look like, and to guide the conversation so that students will come to an understanding of those success criteria. This can be done by asking an open-ended question, or by involving learners in a thought-provoking task. The student’s role is to think about the learning goal, making connections to prior knowledge and/or experience, and contribute his/her ideas about what successful learning might look like.

This collaborative approach allows the educator and the learners to see each other’s perspective on what the learning could look like. In the process, the educator welcomes the learners’ ideas and feelings about the learning. The ideas may not be correct, and the feelings may be negative. By being open to them, the educator can acknowledge the way the learner is thinking and feeling, which is a first step to encouraging, if necessary, a different way of thinking or feeling.

Finally, by collaboratively developing the criteria with learners, the educator is ensuring that learners have the tools they need – knowing the learning goals and understanding the success criteria – to become self-regulating learners, that is, learners who are able to monitor their progress toward goals, and make effective decisions about how to get there.

How can educators find the time to collaborate on identifying the success criteria?

We have often heard from educators that the process of collaboratively developing the criteria with learners takes too long. Some educators set aside dedicated learning time for co-creating the success criteria, saying, “Here’s the learning goal. Now we’re going to brainstorm the criteria.” Some tell us they have spent as much as 45 minutes on this activity, with little to show for it in terms of valid criteria, and to add to the problem, students become bored and disengaged.

We suggest a different approach. Rather than having a ‘formal’ lesson on the criteria, why not note the criteria as they arise during the course of learning – in a discussion with an individual, small group or whole class, or while students are working on a task. If you are vigilant in observing and listening to students, you will find that they identify the success criteria as a natural part of their learning. When this happens, you can ‘notice and name’ the criteria, and record it in some fashion for learners to access – perhaps on a bulletin board or large piece of chart paper. You may just have one criterion after a task or lesson, but over time, the rest should emerge, especially if you are designing questions and tasks that elicit them from learners.

If we allow students to determine the criteria, how can we be sure that they will identify the correct criteria?

Educators have often expressed concern about whether this process will lead to identifying valid criteria. “What if students identify success criteria that do not apply in this learning context?”, they ask. This concern demonstrates a fundamental misconception about what it means to partner with students in learning. Those who ask this question have assumed that ‘partnership’ means equal partnership. This is simply not the case. Learners count on an educator’s guidance as an expert in the knowledge and skills to be learned, as well as expertise in how to learn. So, the educator’s role in a learning partnership involves a delicate balance between being the more knowledgeable and skilled contributor to the process, while at the same time creating the conditions to support the learner’s autonomy.

Does supporting students’ autonomy mean that there is no structure in the learning environment?

Quite the opposite! Teaching students the knowledge and skills to be autonomous in the learning process requires structure. Tools such as learning goals and success criteria provide the scaffolds that learners need to make progress. Descriptive feedback is a highly structured process that learners rely on to build their understanding. Teaching students to self and peer assess and to set goals are also systematic, structured processes. It’s important to understand the difference between a controlling environment – one where power lies solely with the educator – and a structured environment – one where the educator and the learner together use tools and practices that enable learners to become autonomous.

“…when structure is used in controlling ways, it will be detrimental to, rather than facilitative of, student engagement; whereas when it is used in autonomy-supportive ways, it will be facilitative of engagement.” Jang, Reeve, Deci, 2010, p. 590

running-297154_1280One last thought – and a call to action:  As you implement the assessment process, where are the opportunities to be autonomy-supportive? We’ve looked at one example – collaboratively creating the success criteria. However, each of the practices benefits from Reeve’s autonomy-supporting actions. In fact, to realize the full impact of assessment for learning, learners must be supported in developing the knowledge and skills to use the assessment process themselves. As you make the shift in your practice, let us know what happens. We would be delighted to have you share!


Jang, H., Reeve, J. & Deci, E. (2010). Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), pp. 588-600.

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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