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Everything You Need to Know About Student Agency

Posted by Sam Cressman on 2/14/20 1:00 AM
Sam Cressman
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With education instruction and technology changing so frequently, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with the trends and terminology necessary to feel "in the loop" (especially with many education conferences right around the corner). 

One such education term that has emerged is student agency. This article explores the following frequently asked questions about this timely topic:

What is student agency?

How did the concept of student agency develop?

What is an example of student agency?

What are benefits and challenges of student agency?

What is student agency?

If you asked 5 teachers or administrators to define student agency, chances are you would receive 5 different yet similar responses.

Although there is still ongoing discussion in the education community regarding how exactly to define student agency, we can look to the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology as a potential source of truth.

The Office of Educational Technology relates student agency to both personalized learning and blended learning, and defines student agency, or agency in learning, as:

Learners with agency can “intentionally make things happen by [their] actions,” and “agency enables people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal with changing times.” To build this capacity, learners should have the opportunity to make meaningful choices about their learning, and they need practice at doing so effectively. Learners who successfully develop this ability lay the foundation for lifelong, self-directed learning.

To unpack this definition, student agency represents the ability for students to play a critical role in their own development (what they want to learn), practice (how they are learning what they want to learn), and reflection ("self-renewal" or contemplation on what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it).

An expression commonly associated with student agency is "voice and choice," which clearly conveys a situation where students are more active stakeholders in their own educational journey.

My experience learning how to drive many years ago is one real life example of how student agency can be cultivated. When I was first learning to drive a car I enrolled in a driving course. Initially I was in the passenger seat observing and listening to the teacher. This was similar to a traditional lecture where a teacher presents information and students listen and take notes.

Next, as I advanced, I was actually driving the car in the driver seat while the teacher moved to the passenger seat. Despite being the driver, the teacher still had a master steering wheel and brake/acceleration pedals that could override mine. The driving teacher gave me a general destination and tips to practice, but instead of conducting my every move, the instructor gave me the agency to determine how I wanted to reach the destination.

How did the concept of student agency develop?

Although research and efficacy trials on student agency are ongoing, from a common sense perspective and in today's online world, promoting student agency just seems to make sense.

First, students typically enjoy learning what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, more than feeling forced to learn without a voice in the conversation, a scenario which more often than not leads to increased student frustration and decreased productivity.

Furthermore, increased access to technology and how students use technology - examples being the ability to Google any question at any time and/or online learning through platforms like Knowre Math, Khan Academy, and/or YouTube - has fundamentally shifted the way students learn. As a result, student agency has increased organically.

The Office of Educational Technology views agency as a 21st century competency and one that is critical for students if they are to remain globally competitive. The Office also believe that a sense of agency among students can contribute towards "the belief that they are capable of succeeding in school."

A real life example of the organic rise of student agency can be seen through the fall of magazines and door-to-door salespeople.

Traditionally, before the internet, customers (like students) depended on either magazines (like physical classroom materials) and/or salespeople (like teachers) to receive information (like education) about a product or service. Magazines and salespeople acted as gatekeepers to sales/information, without them customers could not learn about the products/services being sold.

Enter the internet. Customers could now research different products/services on their own, shifting the power dynamic from companies/salespeople (schools/teachers) to customers. Although salespeople were still necessary to act as facilitators and to help complete sales, customer expectations had permanently shifted, and a new balance was created as access to information increased. This new balance represents the environment in which student agency can grow.

What is an example of student agency?

Opportunities for student agency can be built into many pre-existing assignments and projects.

In the following example, students are given the opportunity, or "agency," to choose a project that best fits their interest and comfort levels. Meanwhile, the teacher is still responsible for structuring the project in order to ensure that learning goals are being measured and met.

Imagine a sixth grade Earth Science class learning about volcanoes. For the unit final project, students study Mount St. Helens and are given 3 different project options to choose from:

1. Write a 4 page paper on the eruption and the short and long-term environmental impacts on the surrounding area (the paper should have at least some focus on sedimentation). 

2. Study seismographs from the years, months, weeks, and days before the eruption, and present findings to the class through a 5 minute PowerPoint presentation. Questions to consider: can eruptions be accurately predicted in advance? If so, how far in advance? Who monitors volcanoes for eruptions, and did they predict the eruption of Mount St. Helens?

3. Use Google Maps to create a map of the impact zone of the eruption to be shared with the class. This map should include additional details about what type of volcano Mount St. Helens is, typical eruption characteristics of this type of volcano, directions of lava and wind flows post-eruption, and how the surrounding area was impacted in the short and long-terms.

After the above projects have been completed, it is critical to ask for students to reflect on what they learned and how they learned.

  • Why did you choose that project option?
  • What did you like the most when completing this project, and what did you like the least?
  • Do you have any additional questions that you were not able to answer?
  • If you were to complete this project again, what parts of the project do you believe you could improve, and how would you improve them?
  • Did you have any project ideas that were not included in the 3 available options?

This feedback process can inspire future projects and provide space for students to reflect on how they prefer to learn and think. This information can also be used by teachers to optimize future instruction and/or assignments/projects.

What are benefits and challenges of student agency?

When executed well, enabling student agency in the classroom can have long-term positive impacts on student learning, engagement, and development. However, there are potential pitfalls to avoid as well.

Benefits of increased student agency:

Increased student independence and empowerment: when students feel that their voice is being heard and their desires are being acknowledged, they are more likely to feel empowered and to grow their independent learning skills when reaching towards their desired personal outcomes.

Increased problem-solving skills: opportunities for student agency force students to consider different perspectives when approaching the same challenge.

College/career/life readiness: with increased independence and problem-solving skills, students are more prepared for the "real world" where they will constantly face ambiguity and need "21st century skills" to succeed. 

Potential for decreased student frustration and a corresponding increase in trust among students: teachers quickly become "trusted advisors" to students when their voices and choices are acknowledged. The potential for student frustration is also greatly decreased as learning feels less forced and more engaging.

Differentiated instruction: student agency allows students to "choose their own adventure" (within guidelines, more on this below), which leads to differentiated instruction as students use different resources and means to reach ultimately similar objectives.

Challenges of increased student agency:

Large amount of pre-planning required: for student agency-focused assignments to be effective, teachers must act as facilitators and provide clear outcome expectations and general instructions for students to follow. Examples include rubrics, checklists, timelines, and guidelines. Without these expectations and instructions, agency-building assignments can feel like a "free-for-all" to students, allowing them to quickly lose focus.

Teachers must be flexible, prepared, and have a deep understanding of the topics at hand: to gain trusted advisor status among students, teachers must be extremely well-prepared since students have different options and outcomes within one assignment.

Potential decrease in standardized testing performance: although building student agency can help students in the long-term, in the short-term, most schools are still evaluated on the outcomes of standardized assessments. Opportunities for student agency can positively change how students think, but cannot always provide the type of preparation needed to guide students towards successful testing outcomes. 

Want to learn more about how Knowre Math can help teachers build student agency in their classrooms?

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Topics: Students, Classroom, Education Policy, Student Success, Math Instruction, Teachers