Planning forward: Formative assessment and learner agency

Now that we have completed our first three sessions focused on our beliefs about assessment and developing a shared vision, we need to turn our attention to our practice and how we can use assessment to empower our students to be independent, self-regulating, lifelong learners.

I have been reading about the connection between formative assessment and learner agency. Black and Wiliam’s (1989) define formative assessment as

all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by the students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment become ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet the needs (as cited in Crooks, 2001).

The International Baccalaureate (2017) defines learner agency as

the power to take meaningful and intentional action, and acknowledges the rights and responsibilities of the individual, supporting voice, choice and ownership for everyone in the learning community.

Students with agency:

  • have voice, choice and ownership; and a propensity to take action
  • influence and direct learning
  • contribute to and participate in the learning community (1).

Learner agency implies that students have control over their learning, that they are aware of themselves as active learners, and that they are able to speak up and make choices about what they learn, how they learn, who they learn it with, and how they show their learning.

There is a strong connection then between the ideas of learner agency and self-regulated learning. Self-regulated learners independently use a process to set learning goals, plan and monitor their own progress, and then reflect on the effectiveness of the process. They are able “to control their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours to enable them to complete learning tasks” (Tedx Talks, 2016). The research I’ve read proposes that we can help students exercise learner agency through involving them in the formative assessment process (Nicol & MacFarlane-Dick, 2006; Rodgers, 2018; Braund & DeLuca, 2018).

If we can use the formative assessment process to give students repeated opportunities to explain their level of understanding referenced against co-created criteria, identify strategies which do and do not help, seek help from a variety of sources, and reflect on the effectiveness of their process, this would help students develop more control over their learning.

The feedback from my teachers in the last session indicated that the vast majority value formative assessment to improve their teaching  but that they do not use it often enough and are unsure how to use it to give learners more control over their learning.


Braund, H., & DeLuca, C. (2018). Elementary students as active agents in their learning: an empirical study of the connections between assessment practices and student metacognition. The Australian Educational Researcher, 45(1), 65-85.

International Baccalaureate (2017). The Learner in the Enhanced PYP, [PDF file]. Retrieved from:

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

Rodgers, C. (2018). Descriptive feedback: student voice in K-5 classrooms. The Australian Educational Researcher, 45(1), 87-102.

[TedX Talks] (2017, December 10). Motivation, self-regulation and learning how to learning/Heidi Ashton/TedxYouth@LBIS [Video File]. Retrieved from

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