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Learner agency in the assessment process: does it work?

Ana Herrera and María Elvira Castro, PYP teachers, Gimnasio Los Portales, Bogota, Colombia

Peer-feedback and how it can be used to exercise agency in the early years, based on Austin’s butterfly video (Ron Berger, 2012)

Imagine you have an incredible learning experience with your class. All students are engaged in learning and developing their approaches to learning. You feel ecstasy while being part of this beautiful process.

Suddenly, you hear a comment from one student to another: “Is that really a cat? No way! It looks like an alien. It’s horrible!” The second student starts running towards you and tells you what happened with teary eyes.

You can’t help but wonder how that first student could say something so awful when you know the second one was making a great effort to draw.

Living this situation every day and considering the importance of developing learner agency in all the aspects of our learning environment, made us wonder about how to create opportunities in which students can be in charge of their learning while evaluating their own and their classmates’ process–without making others feel small.

Student agency in assessment can happen in many ways when learners are given various opportunities to give their opinions and develop their skills. As teachers, we cannot give agency to learners, but rather create opportunities for learners to exercise agency (Higbea, 2018; Adie et al., 2018). Nevertheless, before a student engages in exercising their agency, they must have a personal connection with it and believe that their voice makes a real difference to their learning (Mercer, 2012).

In an effort to bring assessment closer to our 7-year-olds, we designed a learning experience to develop peer-feedback in the First Grade.

What is peer-feedback?

Peer-feedback is a technique used in cooperative learning where students evaluate their classmates’ work and give feedback to their classmate. This learning tool gives students a glance at how others perceive their productions and teach them about accepting different points of view. It is a great technique, and it is best understood through an example.

First graders are not used to giving or receiving feedback from their peers, only from their teachers. Therefore, we decided to start our process slowly.

Let’s do this

As part of our engagement, we asked students to look for two native plants and animals from our home country, Colombia. As you probably know, Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, so the possibilities for our students to find two different living things were strong. They came back to the classroom with tons of names. Then, each student chose their favorite. Since there are many, all of the students had a different living thing.

Finding out about this living thing

Following the research process and understanding how and why living things are different from one another, each student gathered information about their physical characteristics, habitat, and food, using various sources.

Learning about feedback

Inspired by the Ron Berger Austin’s Butterfly video, we showed our students Austin’s drawings, one by one, and ask them to share their comments on them. All of them started saying that they were good drawings and praised his effort. We asked specific questions about each of them, and they started noticing that some things were not accurate, so they shared some thoughts. After each passing picture, they gave more and more feedback focusing on the actual characteristics of the butterfly and providing advice on how the drawing would be even better. At the end of the process, students compared his first drawing to his last one. I must say they were flabbergasted with the changes.

“Do I really have to draw that?”

Students knew that they would be paying close attention to nature during this project. The next step was telling them we were going to follow the same process as with Austin’s butterfly. At first, they were scared of the drawings because they thought they could never draw the living things they chose. They started by searching for their favorite picture of the plant or animal –we emphasized that it had to be their absolute favorite because they would be drawing it many times. After finding it, the scary feelings from before were replaced with excitement. They wanted to get into the drawing!

“Your drawing’s nice, now I would…”

We printed the pictures and gave them to the students along with a magnifying glass to look at the details. After their first attempt, students were organized in groups of three. They presented the drawing and the real picture to their group. Then, the other two started advising how it would look ‘more real.’ We were cautious with their feedback, as they tend to take all comments personally. However, since they had already done the exercise with Austin’s drawings, they knew we were only focusing on the picture and not themselves as artists. They wrote others’ comments in a piece of paper to remember them during the second attempt.

“This actually looks so much better!”

A week later, students received pictures, magnifying glasses, drawings, and feedback again. They started taking the corrections into account when drawing the second draft. We repeated the process twice after that. In the end, most of them realized that their classmates’ comments had improved their drawing because they paid attention to different details and were given with the purpose of helping.

Some teachers have doubts about giving students the power to comment on their classmates’ work for several reasons. Nevertheless, we think it is necessary to include peer-feedback in the process, so students know their ideas and thoughts are valid, and they realize that they do not study for presenting something to their teachers but to the whole community. Most importantly, they understand that studying is not a competition with peers but a way to make themselves and others better.


[EL Education]. (2012, March 9). Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Adie, L. E., Willis, J., & Kleij, F. M. (2018). Diverse perspectives on student agency in classroom assessment. The Australian Educational Researcher,45(1), 1-12. doi:10.1007/s13384-018-0262-2

Higbea, R. (2018, November 19). Learner Agency in the Enhanced PYP. Retrieved February 5, 2019, from

Mercer, S. (2012). The Complexity of Learner Agency. Apples – Journal of Applied Language Studies,6(2), 41-59. Retrieved November 10, 2018, from

María Elvira Castro is a PYP teacher for first graders at Gimnasio Los Portales, in Bogota, Colombia. She has a B.A. in Early Years Pedagogy from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. She is interested in how the learning community works together towards the common construction of learning.

Ana Melissa Herrera is a PYP teacher for first graders at Gimnasio Los Portales, in Bogota, Colombia. She has a B.A. in Modern Languages from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. Next year, she will be joining a school in North Carolina where she will have the opportunity to research about mathematics and literacy in the early years.


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