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Lately, we’ve been reading a lot about the importance of student agency. It’s a trending buzzword in the education world. But, it’s also an effective tool for increasing student engagement. And, especially after the past three months of distance learning where disengagement has become even more prolific, we believe that educators should utilize this strategy to empower students to be not merely passengers in their education, but active participants.

There are tremendous benefits to student agency. When students are provided with choices, we often see an increase in motivation and interest. We also know that when learning is meaningful and relevant, students are engaged.

Faced with a school year where distance learning could be more of the norm, why wouldn’t we focus on student agency to combat potential disengagement?

What Student Agency Is…and Is Not

Before we go any further, it’s important to define this buzz-worthy term. So, let’s be clear about what we mean when we say “student agency” beginning with the definition offered on Rennaissance EdWords™:

“Student agency refers to learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated with appropriate guidance from teachers. To put it simply, student agency gives students voice and often, choice, in how they learn.”

© Shutterstock/Zoriana Zaitseva

Ideally, student agency empowers students to take initiative and greater control in their learning, and this can be done in a multitude of ways with a myriad of opportunities. Jennifer Davis Poon, Fellow at the Center for Innovation in Education, elaborates further by explaining,

“It is students’ abilities to set advantageous goals, initiate action toward those goals, and reflect and redirect based on feedback, all the while internalizing the belief they can have agency.”

In other words, utilizing student agency provides students with the opportunities to own their learning. Students who own their learning know and can articulate:

  • what they are learning,
  • why they are learning it,
  • how they will know they have learned it,
  • the plan for their learning,
  • what to do when they struggle, and
  • their role in the community of learners.

© Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

But, student agency doesn’t mean that students are free to decide what they want to learn solely based on their interests. Teachers play a critical role in equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to make choices with a clear understanding of how each choice will support them in their learning and how each choice will demonstrate their new learning.

“As educators, we have an obligation to the curriculum and associated standards and skills. Using areas of interest to promote student learning aligned with standards can make all the difference for the educational process.”

Putting Student Agency into Practice

© Shutterstock/SeventyFour

How can we as teachers give our students voice and choice in their learning while also ensuring that they master skills that they need to be college and career ready? By delegating to them the authority, the capacity, and the responsibility of owning their learning.

This means that students have the authority to decide what they need in order to master a new skill—for example, frequency and types of practice, specific opportunities to apply learning, and more opportunities to transfer learning into new situations. This means we build students’ capacity with knowledge and skills to challenge themselves and self-reflect on their growth. And, this means students have the responsibility to be held accountable for their own academic achievements.

An example of what this could look like…

Imagine a 4th grade language arts class that is beginning a unit that will focus on learning the reading and writing skills:

  • Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.
  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

They have been provided with this unit prompt that will allow them to demonstrate their learning of these skills:

You will read texts about individuals that displayed determination throughout their lives. As you read you will refer to details and examples in the text of determination, both in what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

You will write an informative/explanatory essay in which you explain how the individuals in the texts displayed determination throughout their lives. Be sure to refer to details and examples in the text of determination, both in what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

The classroom teacher has spent time discussing this unit of learning with the students and having the students discuss and clarify the learning and the plan for the learning.

When asked these students can explain what skills they are learning, they can explain how they will use their skill of determining the main idea and citing supporting key details to support their informative/explanatory writing. They have a clear understanding of what success will look like and what the plan is for them to achieve it. They can articulate how they will use these skills in the future. And these students can tell you why knowing this information is critical to their learning.

These students are owning their learning. These students have the capacity to be agents of their learning—when deciding the skills they want to hone, the content they want to investigate further, the process of learning they want to utilize, and the demonstration of their learning they want to produce. They are using their voice.

© Shutterstock/Yuganov Konstantin

With this foundation laid, the teacher provides the students with choice. They are provided with the choice of a variety of rich texts to read and gather evidence from. They are provided with options for their informative/explanatory writing product including a traditional essay, a podcast, a PowerPoint, and others.

These students can choose to read about people that are relevant and meaningful to them. They can leverage their strengths and inclinations in how they will demonstrate their learning.

These choices will increase their motivation and engagement. But most importantly, they can explain their learning and their role in it. They are active participants in their learning anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

The Learning Brief

In this article you learned…
  • The benefits of student agency are student motivation and engagement and empowers students to take initiative and greater control in their learning.
  • Utilizing student agency provides students with the opportunities to own their learning.
  • Teachers play a critical role in equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful agents in their learning.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Can you imagine building an environment full of motivated, engaged, and eager students who own their learning?
We can.

Let us show you how

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