Student Agency for Powerful Learning What You Need to Know


The Power of Student Agency

Agency describes the ability to identify valued goals and desired outcomes, and to pursue those goals and outcomes proactively and effectively according to The Role of Agency in Learning article.

Student Agency is about empowering learners to navigate their educational journeys confidently, putting them in the driver’s seat of decision-making and choice. It’s about embracing their innate ability to act independently and make informed choices that resonate with their interests and goals.

The significance of Student Agency can’t be overstated in today’s educational landscape. With mounting research underscoring its positive impact on student engagement and academic success, it’s clear that fostering this independence isn’t just a buzzword—it’s a crucial facet of an effective learning environment. Moreover, the cultivation of agency isn’t only beneficial for immediate academic pursuits; it lays the groundwork for a mindset geared toward lifelong learning. So, let’s delve into the empowering world of Student Agency and explore how it might just be the game-changer in your students’ education.

What is Student Agency?

Jenny Poon, author What Do You Mean When You Say Student Agency?, came to a consensus from various research on student agency involves four distinct components:

Agency Compoenents Image

Setting Goals

Poon points out that setting goals is to drive toward goals that are advantageous to the student. Teachers can help students get better at making goals. When it comes to getting students to where they want to go, teachers can plan learning paths that help students become more aware of their present strengths and weaknesses. They can give you chances to practice, evaluate, and get feedback on skills like planning ahead and being mindful.

Initiating Action

Kids don’t just stare out the bus window once they know where they’re going. Existential ideas like voice, choice, free will, freedom, individual volition, self-influence, and self-initiation are used in the second part of the student agency definition, which talks about starting an action.

Teachers can help students develop these skills by giving them options or free-form chances to choose strategies and tactics that will help them reach a goal. This way, students can be different from their peers while they study something that interests them. Teachers can help students learn on their own by showing them how to organize their work, take notes, practice, and more. Creating learning environments that boost motivation and interest is another way teachers encourage students to take the initiative.

Teachers can help students develop a sense of voice, ownership, and self-determination by giving them control over “time, task, technique, and team” as they work on learning goals or by making learning social through group work or projects that involve the whole community.

Reflecting and Redirecting

It’s important for students to have the freedom to plan, act, think, and change their minds. This needs determination and grit. It takes skills like self-discipline and the ability to think about things. Teachers can help students do this by setting up times for them to talk about their thoughts with others, think about themselves, and give and receive comments with adults and other students.

Internalizing Self-Efficacy

Beliefs about self-efficacy, the fourth and final part of the definition, is less obvious but just as important to teach pupils. Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on “growth mindsets” has shown that students will work harder to achieve more if they know they aren’t born “smart” or “dumb” but can get better.

Why is Agency Important?

According to The Role of Agency in Learning article by the education hub, agency is important in schools because students who are agentic change their surroundings and life paths in thoughtful, purposeful ways. A student with a strong sense of agency makes chances for learning happen, instead of reacting to them. Students with a sense of agency regularly talk about how interested they are in something and what they want it to be about. They also ask to have a say in how problems are fixed, and look for ways to make the lesson more relevant to them personally. They will work on purpose by suggesting goals or goals to work toward, asking for resources or learning opportunities, finding study places and methods that work for them, and asking for help or clarification. They will participate in learning by making comments or suggestions, asking deep questions, and giving their thoughts and ideas. When students feel they have control over their lives, they speak up for themselves and the issues that matter to them.

Students need to be responsible for their own learning if they want to get through hard times and reach their goals. Agency can help students deal with tough situations like the pandemic, family problems, and anything else that is getting in the way of their success.

Why is student agency a good thing?

From the article Student Agency: Promoting Student Engagement it’s easy to see that giving students choice has many benefits in the classroom. Giving students a lot of freedom makes them much more interested in learning and teaching. Students are more motivated when they are involved. This also helps students understand what they are learning better. This makes learning fun and useful.

Not only does giving students more power get them involved, but it also encourages them to be creative and ask questions. It is these two things that help students learn and do well in school that matter the most. When students are asked to ask questions, make links, and talk about their own experiences, they better understand what they are learning, which means they know more about it. It is clear that the students who work through the student agency approach put in a lot of effort. Like project- or problem-based learning, student agency is all about setting goals, thinking about what you’ve done, and growing. Students truly own and are in charge of their own learning process when they use this way of teaching.

One more good thing about student freedom is that it helps students become independent. They feel strong when they know they are being heard and valued in the classroom. Student agency promotes and celebrates all of these benefits. These are skills that will help students in school, in their job, and most importantly, in life. Isn’t that one of the main goals of K–12 education: to get kids ready for the future? Student choice is an important part of reaching this clear goal.

Strategies for Student Agencies to Get Students Involved

Student Agency: Promoting Student Engagement article asks what are some specific methods that are used to give students in any grade or subject more control over their learning? One important thing to keep in mind is that students only get better at being independent when it is part of their usual lessons. This way of teaching and learning takes some time to get used to for students who are used to standard classrooms where teachers teach and students answer. Both the teacher and the student need to change the way they think about student power. It focuses on the student instead of the teacher, and teachers need to be okay with giving up power. Student autonomy needs to be a regular part of teaching, not just sometimes, if we want to fully engage students and see good results in the learning process.

The first thing that needs to be done to make this happen is to make the classroom a place where questions, creativity, communication, citizenship, critical thought, and working together are valued. The five Cs should be a normal part of a school in the 21st century, and giving students choices makes sure they are. Teachers should be able to clearly set learning goals for each student so that each student knows what they need to do to reach those goals.

It’s also important for the teacher to keep giving comments and helping the student. In fact, this is a great way to get kids fully involved whether they are working alone, with a partner, or in a group. Including discussions and readings that are both current and culturally representative is a great way to get students interested and involved. Sharing, posting, and thinking about student work are also important ways to get them involved. These important parts stress how important it is for students to be independent and in charge.

We need to be aware of what our kids are learning and figure out the best way to help them do well in school. Research has shown that giving students more control over their learning can help with all of these goals. Focusing on what interests our kids makes them more interested in learning. The only reason for student autonomy is to do that.

How to Build Student Agency?

According to the article How to build student agency in your classroom? it suggests 5 quick tips for building student agency:

1. Be clear about what kind of independence you want and how you’ll check in with them. Being clear with your kids is very important, and they will be more interested if they know what will and won’t work. Say you have a reading program where students can choose their own books. Tell them what choices they’ll have to make and when you’ll check in with them to make sure the book fits their needs.

2. Help your kids understand why they need to learn certain things. The wrong answer is “Because it’s on the test!” When planning your lessons, think about how you’ll present big ideas. Do your kids understand how it applies to their everyday lives? Have they a good idea of where they want to learn?

3. Culturally responsive methods can help you build community. Take a look at your present unit of study. What does it have to do with the cultures of your students? By using culturally responsive teaching methods, you make the classroom a place where everyone feels welcome, which helps students connect with the subject. Take a story problem from a school book and show it to your students. Then, ask them which parts of the problem they can relate to the most. Next, ask them how we can change this question to make more sense in this situation.

4. To give students more control over their learning, use exploratory conversation starters. Too often, when there is a lot of material to learn, like in math, English, or another subject, we just push kids to get it done. We miss important chances to get students interested and spark a sense of open-ended potential that is at the heart of what we teach when we do this. For example, using question-and-answer sessions to find out what your students think about a subject or idea will help you and your students learn a lot more.

5. Tell your coworkers what works for you. I can’t say this enough, and Hattie’s meta-analyses make it very clear: collective teaching efficacy changes the way people learn. Simply put, when we share what we do with our colleagues and when we calibrate and plan to make our lessons, units, and daily teaching practices have the most effect, student growth and mastery move in big ways. This is even more important when it comes to giving students more control over their learning. When we, as teachers, work together to create the right conditions, habits, and rules for student control, students have a smoother learning experience that gives them the control, confidence, and independence they need and deserve.

How Do I Plan Units That Build Agency?

According to Bill Zima, author of Mindsets and Skill Sets for Learning, the agency unit planner is a tool designed to guide a teacher deliberately deciding how to implement the four instructional components of the framework for building agency (inquiry starter, learning targets, application of knowledge, and reflection) so that he or she can ensure a well-coordinated learning experience that benefits students’ development of agency. Note that the first component of the framework, classroom culture, is not part of unit planning, as it needs to happen every day in the classroom.

The agency unit planner helps teachers create coherent, relevant, and comprehensible learning experiences. A coherent learning opportunity is one that proceeds logically and stays focused. A learning experience without a deliberate plan can meander and get off track quickly, emphasizing learning targets unrelated to the unit. It will leave learners with unintended gaps, omissions, and errors in thinking.

A relevant learning opportunity has a close connection to what learners find interesting, or to real-world issues, aspirations, or goals.

A comprehensible learning opportunity is one that learners can understand. Are they able to grasp the information teachers and other sources input into their minds? According to Robert J. Marzano (2017), the process of chunking content, breaking it down into “small, understandable increments” (p. 56), helps students learn new information. Students can only hold up to seven bits of distinct information in their working memories simultaneously.

All the sections of the agency unit planner align with the four major components—inquiry starter, learning targets, application of knowledge, and reflection. Specifically, the sections of the agency unit planner are as follows.

  •  Inquiry starter: Plan an activity that triggers wonder and link it to your initial ideas about the culminating project.

• Learning targets: Identify the learning targets and essential knowledge that form the foundation of the unit.

• Mindsets and skill sets of agency: Select cognitive and metacognitive skills that will be an explicit part of the unit.

  • Application of knowledge: List foundational knowledge, how students will learn it, how they will provide evidence that they know it, and how to apply it to demonstrate they understand the concept or can execute the skill without error.

• Assessment plan: Plan specific assessments for foundational knowledge and the targeted understanding or skill.

  • Culminating project: Design an authentic assignment that requires students to apply their learning.

• Reflection: Prepare for student reflection before, during, and after the learning experience.


I like having the time to work on questions I am interested in figuring out, instead of always having to answer the question the teacher wants. I also like that I get to work with a few friends and move about the classroom when I need to get something to help us answer questions. I am talking and moving, but also not being disruptive because I am doing things that do not break our code of conduct.

I have heard people say this type of learning is not good for students who struggle with learning or pay attention. I am one of those students, and I am doing so much better in school now. I actually like school now.—Elementary school student
May 9, 2016

Keep Learning

How to Practice Mind and Skill Sets Shape Classroom Culture post discuss practice mind and skill sets shape classroom culture by teachers involving students in what it means to belong to the group, how they act as a group, and how they adjust their behaviors when they are not meeting their goals as a group.

You can read Activate Agency and Student Ownership