From Effort to Agency

Effort – A student’s perspective

As a student, I’d get a report card at the end of each semester that had two grades on it: one for achievement and one for effort.

The achievement grade told me how much I’d learned and the standard I’d achieved. School was about learning, so the achievement grade represented how well I was doing at school.

Achievement grades were used to determine things like school awards. In the final year of school, they determined which courses at university I could get into. Achievement grades were important.

On the other hand, the effort grade reflected how much work – the amount of time and energy – I’d put into earning my achievement grade in class.

A low effort grade meant I had to “work harder” in school. A high effort grade meant I was working well.

Occasionally, there were prizes for effort, too. Teachers tried to make a big deal of them. But they often felt like consolation prizes. After all, we were there for learning – that was the real goal. Achievement was where the real prizes went.

I never understood why some students got effort awards but did not achieve much learning. It seemed to be a way of saying, “You’re not very smart, but you’ve tried your hardest. You’ll never get the real prize, so this is the best we can expect from you.”

Some teachers even used effort grades as a form of punishment for kids who were getting good grades. Despite their great academic performances, students might receive lower effort grades because the teacher felt they could have done more.

The teacher’s rule of thumb was always for students to put in more effort.

Personally, my goal in school was to get an A for achievement and an F for effort. I thought getting the highest possible achievement grade with the lowest possible effort grade was a sign of genius. Smart kids could get the results without all the effort and hard work!

Effort – As a teacher

Today, I recognise I had very Fixed Mindset views as a student.

I thought effort made up for a deficit. I reasoned that if you were smart, you didn’t have to work hard. To me, putting in effort was a sure sign I lacked (natural) ability.

My teachers’ attitudes towards effort tended to reinforce this. As I reflect on it now, it seems to me that effort was required for students who struggled, but it was requested of students who achieved more easily.

When I became a classroom teacher, effort grades still confused me. I didn’t get into teaching so students could try hard but fail. Academic grades were the real goal, after all. In the real world, there were no prizes for effort. Results were what counted!

And that’s as it should be. It’s not “OK, as long as you try your hardest”. We need students who can achieve real results!

Today, with more experience and insight, the biggest issue with reporting on what we traditionally call “effort” is crystal clear to me:

If it is possible for one student to receive a high achievement grade with low effort, and

If it also possible for another student to receive a low achievement grade with high effort

Then what exactly are we measuring?

What’s the point of reporting on effort if there is little or no correlation between effort and the real goal of achieving growth?

The way we talk about and report on “effort” is broken!

Intuitively, we know there’s something we are trying to encourage students to engage in that should result in better performance. But “effort” isn’t it.

Typically, when we talk about effort, we mean time and energy. We think more time and more energy spent on a task means more effort. The problem here is that time and energy are limited resources. If you’ve spent all your available time and energy on a task, then you can’t be expected to do any better. If you’ve got time and energy in reserve, then you could have done better.

The problem with this definition is that it confuses effort with efficacy. It’s not the amount of time and energy that’s important. It’s how well that time and energy are spent that’s important.

That’s why I want to shift the conversation. We need to stop talking about time and energy, and instead talk about how effectively time and energy are spent. We need to ask ourselves: how are we teaching students to use their limited time and energy to engage more effectively with the learning process – and become better learners?

In short, we need to shift the conversation from student effort to Learner Agency!

Today, I tend to agree with my younger self. Getting the highest possible results for the lowest possible effort is a sign of a genius. But it’s not because you’re a “natural”. It’s because you’ve been taught a set of behaviours that allow you to spend your time and energy efficaciously. You’ve learnt how to become a better learner. That’s Learner Agency!

Over the coming weeks, I will explore the concept of Learner Agency: what it is, why our current methods of reporting on “effort” are broken, why we need to shift our focus from effort to agency, and, most importantly, what teachers can do to help students increase their Learner Agency, become better learners and achieve more.


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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