Steps Toward Maturity: Introducing the Concept of Student Autonomy (Part 2)

November 7, 2017 by

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

In the first part of this series, I call for us to be strategic in how we communicate the concepts related to student agency to the general public while also building a more precise understanding of what it means and how to help students develop the mindsets, maturity, and skills to be lifelong learners. In this article, the concept of student autonomy is defined as well as the implications for building a system of assessments.

In the previous article, I suggest that study groups on concepts related to student agency could help the field. I’d start with the newly released paper Principles for Assessment Design and Use to Support Student Autonomy, developed by the Hewlett Assessment for Learning Working Group and available at the CIE website. It is a must read. This paper introduces design principles to help build student agency through assessment for learning practice and is a launching pad for much deeper conversations in our field. Below are a few highlights to consider:

Student Autonomy

The paper uses the term autonomy to refer to two concepts: student agency and self-regulated learning (beware the confusion that could happen with SRL and SEL).

Student Agency: According to a recent report from Harvard University, agency is “the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency “do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives” (Ferguson, Phillips, Rowley & Friedlander 2015, p. 1). Indicators of student agency in school include a sense of efficacy, a growth mindset, a goal-orientation to learning, and higher future aspirations (Ferguson et al., 2015).

Self-Regulated Learning: Self-regulated learning (SRL) is one aspect of the broader skill of self-regulation (NRC, 2012). SRL involves employing strategies such as goal-setting, developing plans to achieve goals, monitoring progress toward goals, and upon reflection adapting learning approaches to move closer to desired goals (e.g., Boekaerts & Cascallar, 2006, Pintrich, 2000, 2004; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2011). SRL applies not only to cognition but also to motivation and overt behavior, for example, removing distractions from a learning situation, effective time-management, and the focused exertion of effort (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2007).

I’ve read these two concepts of agency and SRL over and over trying to understand why it is so important to separate them like this. My strongest understanding is that Ferguson et al defined agency as a disposition or mindset, whereas SRL is more focused on specific strategies or skills. Please forgive my awkward effort to create an example but it was a helpful process: I might have higher future aspirations to become a neuroscientist, but without the SRL strategies it is unlikely I will be able to reach them. Vice versa, I might be able to regulate my behaviors, but if I don’t believe that girls can become scientists it is unlikely that I will put effort toward reaching that goal. Thus agency and SRL go hand in hand.

Design Principles for System of Assessments

The paper outlines six design principles for building a system of assessments.

  1. Provide accessible and actionable information that enables further learning
  2. Comprise assessments that are understood, embraced, and valued by students as authentic and worthwhile
  3. Align with a triad of curriculum, instruction, and assessment
  4. Support students’ ability to transfer knowledge and skills outside of school
  5. Create opportunities to build self-knowledge
  6. Promote equity

These design principles will look familiar to people who read everything they can on building system of assessments that are aligned with the cycle of learning (as compared to serving the purpose of external accountability policies). However, there is a very different flavor in the context of building student autonomy. For example, under the first principle, a system of assessments that supports student autonomy provides information to teachers and to students in time to be useful for (1) instructional decision-making, (2) guiding students’ attention to their own learning through meaningful and targeted feedback, (3) helping students enhance self-knowledge so that they better understand who they are and what they want to become, and (4) identifying community and cultural assets to support greater access and opportunity to learn for all students.

The first two purposes of assessments we’ve seen before. However, enhancing self-knowledge and identifying community and cultural assets to support learning jumped out at me as stretching our expectations of the role of assessment can play.

Thus, this paper can serve as a valuable resource for discussion within a PLC, staff meeting, or across our field.

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