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A student writing in class works independently and is an example of student agency.

What is student agency–and why do we need it?

Research on student agency reveals its important place in the classroom

It’s only recently that I’ve become much more disciplined in my use of the term “student agency” and how I apply it.

Thanks to a research assignment on behalf of the Center for Innovation in Education’s Assessment for Learning Project, I’ve learned that the term—and related terms, such as “self-regulated learning”—has a rich lineage of researchers and practitioners who have carefully defined it.

By looking across researchers (1), practitioners, and other thought leaders (2), common elements arise that begin to suggest a consensus.

Related: What student choice and agency actually looks like

From these sources, the dust seems to settle on a concept of “student agency” that involves four distinct components. The first three are temporally linked covering future, present, and past:
• Setting advantageous goals
• Initiating action toward those goals
• Reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals

Several sources also agree on a fourth dimension that undergirds the others—a belief in self-efficacy. For me, this multi-part definition clears the air by allowing me to situate related terms—like voice, choice, and ownership—as valid pieces that fit within a larger whole.

The four components of student agency

Setting goals

Educators can design pathways of learning that promote students’ awareness of their current strengths and weaknesses relative to a developing sense of where they want to go. They can provide opportunities to practice, self-assess, and receive feedback on specific skills such as forethought, intentionality, and “planful competence.”

Of course, the point isn’t to set goals willy-nilly but to drive toward goals that are advantageous to the student. This is a value statement that calls into question what gets counted as a worthwhile goal and who gets to make that determination. The way we answer these questions has important ramifications on equity—a point I explore in the second post in this conversation.

Initiating action

Once a direction is set, students become the drivers. This second part of the definition—initiating action—invokes existential concepts such as voice, choice, free will, freedom, individual volition, self-influence, and self-initiation.

Educators can help students develop these capacities by providing choices or open-ended opportunities to select strategies and tactics for meeting a goal, allowing students to diverge from their peers as they explore something relevant to them. Educators can encourage independent learning by teaching effective learning strategies, such as organization, note-taking, and rehearsing. Educators can also encourage initiative by creating learning environments that optimize motivation and engagement.

By providing students autonomy over “time, task, technique, and team” as they tackle learning objectives; or by making learning social through group work or community-based projects, educators can help students develop a sense of voice, ownership, and self-determination.

Reflecting and redirecting

Students with agency not only plan and act but also reflect and redirect. This involves perseverance and grit. It requires skills such as reflection and self-discipline. It is something that educators can encourage by structuring opportunities for students to externalize their thinking, self-reflect, and offer and receive feedback with adults and peers.

From an equity standpoint, it is also an opportunity for educators to complement the development of self-reflection and perseverance with practices focused on building critical consciousness as a way to understand and situate one’s agency within a “broader collective struggle for social justice.”

Internalizing self-efficacy

The fourth and final component of the definition—beliefs about self-efficacy—is less outwardly apparent but no less important to instill in students. Research on “growth mindsets” by Carol Dweck has shown if students understand they aren’t born “smart” or “dumb” but have capacity to get smarter, they put in the extra effort necessary to achieve more.

Researchers have similarly applied the concept to agency, associating one’s belief in their ability to succeed with their level of effort and their ability to persist when facing challenges. Conversely, students with low self-efficacy exhibit learned helplessness, a belief they “have no power over what goes on around them, and nothing they do contributes to their success or lack of it.”

Educators can help students overcome learned helplessness and reinforce their self-efficacy through several tactics, such as providing multiple opportunities for students to develop and showcase mastery of their learning (as in a competency-based system); stretching students by targeting their zone of proximal development; sharing about peers and role models who overcome hurdles; instructing about and reinforcing growth mindsets; and explicitly attending to students’ physical and emotional states.

The next time someone asks you about the meaning of “student agency,” will you consider all four components in your response? And, when you’re working with students and schools to develop agency in students, will you intentionally build skills and mindsets in each component? In doing so, we can better develop strong young adults capable of effecting positive change in their own lives and the world around them.

1. Hitlin and Elder, Bandura, Zimmerman and Schunk, Heritage, Andrade, the National Research Council, and the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, among others

2. Education Reimagined, Summit Public Schools, New Tech Network schools, the Next Generation Learning Challenges, Students at the Center, the Hewlett Foundation, Transforming Education, Transcend, and the Assessment for Learning Project grantees

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