What is Student Agency?
By David Reese
The term student agency relates to the student having an active role in their learning through voice, and often a choice, in the process. Project and problem-based learning provide opportunities to increase student agency through activities that are interesting and relevant to the learner. When the student has agency, the student is making, creating, doing, sharing, collaborating, and publishing in ways that are meaningful to them.
Learning experiences that engage and promote student agency often have many of the following qualities:
Igniting student passion is something that teachers know to be effective. How to ignite these passions can vary from student to student. What matters and why is something that we all try to figure out. If we can have the students help identify their passions, then we as educators can build/create content aligned experiences that revolve around these passions. Through this opportunity, the student can become excited and dig deep into a topic while the teacher serves as a facilitator of the knowledge the student seeks.
If students are given opportunities to learn through tasks that are meaningful and relevant, they will often take the work and learn further than the teacher originally intended. Most of us have had this experience where students become engaged and want more time in the classroom. This is a great moment for a teacher. It is a greater moment for the students and is driven by their motivation and interest. Service learning is one practice that can help provide students the opportunity to achieve these high levels of agency. When I say service learning, I do not mean going out and cleaning a road., but rather I am referring to experiences that actively engage students and connects classroom knowledge and its application to provide a service and potential benefits to the community.
As educators, we have an obligation to the curriculum and associated standards and skills. Connecting student passion and purpose to the curriculum can provide better opportunities for the successful mastery of content and skills as well as student agency. We know students want to learn in a meaningful way, and it is our responsibility to ensure they’re learning topics and practices that often appear on standardized tests. Using areas of interest to promote student learning aligned with standards can make all the difference for the educational process.
As students activate their knowledge and skills, we as educators can guide this learning through the curriculum and through the decisions the students are making based on their work and their creation of products and processes. Through the experience, it will be important to connect the focal points of the task by encouraging self-assessment, peer-assessment, and teacher evaluation.
Providing students a stake in choosing how best to move forward with a problem and/or project can help promote student investment of time, motivation, and willingness to succeed. These choices may also be in the form of research strategies, products created, and/or solutions generated for different audiences with an interest in the outcome. Utilizing a constructivist approach will help students know that they can make mistakes along the way and still have the support of the teacher. Feedback along the way helps the students build an understanding of themselves and encourages personal growth. During this process, students are continually learning that their decisions will take them in certain directions, some that will be successful and some that will not, thus helping to develop their self-awareness and problem-solving abilities.
Student agency activates student learning and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process. The teacher assumes the role of “expert facilitator” guiding the students’ path as needed. As the facilitator, the teacher also determines when to allow the student to engage in purposeful struggle. When students trust their teacher is going to allow them to move through their chosen path, they are more invested in their own growth and empowered to follow a path to mastery.