[Assessment] From Effort to Agency

Most schools report on something we might loosely call effort. It’s a way of measuring a student’s contribution to the learning process.

How schools do this varies greatly. But the intent is the same. We want students to engage in the type of behaviours that are likely to lead to greater growth and achievement.

Below I briefly describe the three most common approaches schools use – assessing effort, behaviours, or dispositions. I highlight problems associated with each before going on to explain the benefits of shifting our focus to Learner Agency.


Assessments that focus on effort ask students to put more time and energy into their actions.

As I wrote last week, at the most basic level, effort is interpreted as the amount of time and energy spent on a task.

The “Effort Meter” (available on Amazon) is an example of an assessment tool that uses the time and energy definition of effort. It focuses on asking students for “more” of what they are doing, to the point where the top level of the meter says, “I gave it my all”.

However once a student has given a task “their all”, there’s no obvious path towards further improvement. What if the student has given the task their all but failed to achieve quality outcomes?

It’s this kind of thinking that leads to statements like, “As long as you’ve tried your hardest, that’s OK.” This reflects a fixed and limited view of the student’s abilities and resources: once expended, there’s no room for advancement.

The problem with the Effort Meter and similar assessment tools is that they lack clarity on the specific actions students should do “more” of.


Assessments that focus behaviours ask students to engage in particular actions more often.

A better approach is to assess how often students engage in specific learning behaviours – typically, on a scale from rarely to always. See the Successful Behaviour Report Card available on Teachers Pay as an example.

Assessing specific behaviours has several advantages. Compared to the blunt concept of “effort”, measuring specific behaviours is more likely to have a direct impact on student learning outcomes. It also allows teachers to give more precise and concrete feedback to students by directing students to engage in a specific set of actions.

However it is frequency, not quality, that is measured. More is better. At some point, the student “always” engages in the behaviour, and the tool loses its ability to improve student performance. Moreover, the types of behaviours measured are often more closely related to classroom management, and only loosely related to student learning. Common examples include arriving to class on time, bring all your equipment, completing homework etc

Attitudes and dispositions

Assessments that focus on dispositions ask students to get better at engaging in a set of actions.

An approach that’s likely to have a greater impact on student learning outcomes is to report on students’ attitudes and dispositions.

These reports often include statements like “preparedness to ask questions in classes” or “willingness to cooperate with others”. They might even specifically mention dispositions, like the Habits of Mind. Teachers make qualitative judgements, typically on scales from poor to excellent.

The big advantage of this assessment style is that it focuses on quality rather than quantity. It encompasses many of the actions included in the behaviour assessment style mentioned above but allows teachers to ask “how well” the student engages in those behaviours.

This style of reporting is likely to have a more significant impact on student learning outcomes. However, in a similar way to behaviour reports, at some stage, the student reaches a point of “excellent”. Again, there is no obvious direction for further development as a learner.

Summative or formative?

A problem shared by all three of the above methods is that the tick-box approach tends to result in an almost entirely summative assessment. It occurs at the end of the learning process with little to direct students towards improvement.

While teachers may have an opportunity to provide written comments, formative assessment tends to be in the form of simply asking students to do “more” or “better”.  There are rarely any scaffolds to assist teachers in giving directed formative feedback to students to help them develop as learners.

Learner Agency – Building Better Behaviours

Assessments that focus on Learner Agency show students how to engage in better sets of actions.

Assessment tools that focus on Learner Agency are different.

They are based on specific, observable behaviours that allow teachers to identify how effective the student is as a learner.

Teachers then tailor formative feedback to guide students towards adopting more effective learning behaviours. It’s not a matter of “more”. It’s not a matter of better. It’s a matter of incrementally adopting a different, and increasingly efficacious, set of learning behaviours.

Further, understanding each student’s development informs pedagogy and allows teachers to give parents meaningful instructions to support the development of their child as a learner.

Finally, unlike the methods described above that have an end point, assessments that focus on Learner Agency are open-ended. They allow for the ongoing development of the student as a learner, continually impacting and improving student learning outcomes.

The questions we now need to explore are: What are the learning critical behaviours that we need to focus on?  What does it look like to develop Learner Agency? How do we teach students to become better learners? And what specific pedagogies and feedback can we engage in to increase Learner Agency?

Answering these questions will allow us to shift our conversation from effort to agency.

I’ll introduce these critical behaviours in my blog in the coming weeks, and I explore these more completely in my new book, The Learning Landscape.

Using the analogy of The Learning Landscape, we will explore how we help students:

  • Develop their attitude towards taking on challenges and the types of challenges you take on.
  • Prepare and equip themselves with the Habits of Mind to climb succeed at difficult challenges.
  • Use information from feedback and mistakes to improve.
  • Distribute their time and energy more efficaciously.


James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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