Beyond WALTS and SC

By Margaret Hesketh on January 22, 2019 in Assessment for learning

Strengthening student assessment capabilities to increase learner agency

Learner agency is a phrase that is discussed, inquired into and developed by many educators across the world. It is inspiring and humbling to read and view teachers’ experiences of their mind shift and the challenges and successes they met as a consequence of increasing student voice, choice and ownership of the learning in classrooms from Year 1 to 13.

We as educators have been inundated with information from many sources as to why it is important to foster a learning environment in which the learners who “possess a high level of agency are not passive participants in their learning but active participants engaged in seeking experiences, meaning and purpose that help them achieve the accomplishments they desire” (Bean, 2017, para. 4 & 5) so I am not going to spend time restating these. Instead, I am going to explore how extending assessment for learning, beyond learning intentions and success criteria, can move a student towards increased learner agency. I want to look in particular at the need to develop a learner’s assessment literacy.

What does assessment literacy look like for a learner? “Students who have well developed assessment capabilities are able and motivated to access, interpret, and use information from quality assessment in ways that affirm or further their learning” (Absolum, Flockton, Hattie, Hipkins, & Reid, 2009, p. 19). To cultivate this with our students, we need to have determination and assessment literacy ourselves (Booth, Dixon, & Hill, 2016). As a recent classroom practitioner I wonder how far I went down the assessment for learning road to fully develop my learners’ assessment literacy and motivate them to independently and deliberately seek assessment that gave them an indication of how they were going with their learning and possible next steps.

When I was first introduced to assessment for learning in the the context of writing, there was a large focus on ensuring that I made it very clear to my students what they were going to learn about, (or had learnt about, depending on where the best place was to discuss the learning intention), why they were learning about it and how they could achieve it through the co-construction of success criteria. In doing so my students and I had a shared yardstick on which to reflect and monitor progress and provide next learning steps in individual, peer and group situations

These next learning steps served to inform the specific teaching that I would do. To increase learner agency, I asked my students at the end of each week to give suggestions about what workshops they would like to see happen the following week. At the same time, I shared with them the skills or concepts I felt needed to be taught (and why) if they were different to what the students had mentioned. After selecting the next week’s workshops from the co-constructed list I shared these with my students at the beginning of the next week and they selected the workshops they were going to attend. With the increased voice, choice and responsibility my learners began to enjoy writing a lot more, were motivated to take risks to improve their compositions and the quality of writing improved.

However, as I look over the assessment literacy capabilities in Evaluation Associates’ Assessment for Learning Student Capabilities MatrixI realise that I needed to develop further my learners assessment capabilities to move them along the learner agency scale towards truly active learning. The matrices describe assessment capable students as viewing “assessment as essential in helping them monitor their learning” and contributing to assessment decisions by determining what is to be assessed and when. To link that back to learner agency, Bean (2017, para. 5) states that learner “agency means that students have a level of control and autonomy…about what, where and how they learn and show mastery of their outcomes”.

I’ll give you an example of how I could have helped my students to develop more agency in their learning. In order to understand themselves better as authors, I introduced them to Fletcher’s (2000) three different types of writers who vary the amount they draft write before looking to revise it: sentence stackers, paragraph pilers and vomiters. The first two are self-explanatory as to when the authors begins to revise their work, the vomiters prefer to write an entire draft before revising. While my students began to identify themselves as one or a mixture of categories of drafters I did not take advantage of this knowledge and understanding to develop further the self-evaluative practices (Booth et al., 2016) of my learners and consequently their student agency.

Rather than encouraging them to determine when and what they wanted feedback on, dependent on whether they had written a sentence, paragraph or a full draft, I insisted that students obtained feedback once an entire piece of writing was completed. If I were back in a classroom, I would certainly seek to increase the learners’ responsibility for selecting when they wanted feedback. This would have helped them to monitor their progress and improve their writing conditional on when they felt they were ready for feedback, as opposed to a moment that was mandated by me.

Whilst fostering assessment literacy in learners is just one component of effective assessment for learning (an essential ingredient for increased student agency) I am curious about whether educators in New Zealand are developing these to the fullest extent that they might. Booth et al. (2016) suggests that we are not, and I know that from my experience I certainly wasn’t. I encourage teachers, as part of the constant, critical reflection that they do, to consider whether they have gone beyond the clarity of learning and use of success criteria to a point where their learners are truly agentic by requesting an assessment of their learning at their discretion, independent of teacher intervention.


Absolum, M., Flockton, L., Hattie, J., Hipkins, R., & Reid, I. (2009). Directions for assessment in New Zealand: Developing students’ assessment capabilities. Retrieved 2018, from

Bean, K. (2017). Student agency: Creating an integrated authentic K – 12 approach. Retrieved November 2018, from Getting Smart:

Booth, B., Dixon, H., & Hill, M. (2016). Assessment capability for New Zealand teachers and students: Challenging but possible. Set: Research information for teachers(2), pp. 28 – 35.

Evaluation Asscociates. (n.d.). Matrices, templates and review tools. Retrieved from Evaluation Associates:

Fletcher, R. (2000). How writers work: Finding a process that works for you. New York: HarperCollins.

Get in touch today to learn more

Other articles you might like