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Supporting student agency makes a huge difference in student learning outcomes--here's how to leverage it for academic success.

How to support student agency


This simple strategy makes a huge difference in student learning outcomes--here's how to leverage it for student success

Key points:

In my more than 20 years of supporting students on their academic journey, I’ve realized there are no “magic” solutions in education. But there are some strategies that have proven to be more effective than others in helping all students succeed.

One of the most basic, yet effective, strategies is giving students choice and agency over their learning.

Student agency empowers learners to play a more active role in their own education by taking charge of the learning process under the guidance of skilled educators. Agency is a key element in personalizing education, and research has found that students who have agency in their learning are happier in school and more likely to achieve success.

The benefits of student agency

Students are more engaged and motivated.

When students have a voice in their learning, they can choose topics and activities that align with their strengths and interests and that are personally meaningful to them—resulting in deeper engagement and better academic achievement.

Besides allowing students to pursue topics that interest them, the sense of ownership and autonomy that student agency provides is very motivating in itself. In his best-selling book Drive, author Daniel Pink observes that autonomy is a key driver of human motivation. As Pink writes in the book: “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

In surveys conducted earlier this year, one-third third of educators characterized students as unmotivated to do their best work academically—and 14 percent of students agreed they were unmotivated in school.

When asked what their teachers could do to help motivate them, students identified a number of strategies related to agency. For instance, 29 percent of students said: “Let me do assignments on topics that interest me if they are relevant to what we are learning.” Nearly a quarter of students (24 percent) said: “Offer a choice of different ways I can demonstrate I have learned something.”

Students learn independence and other skills needed for success.

By taking responsibility for their own education, students learn how to become more independent and advocate for themselves. If they have agency over their schedule, they also learn how to manage their time effectively.

These are skills that will serve students well once they graduate. Whether they go on to college or begin a career immediately after high school, they will no longer have somebody telling them what to do and when to do it. Learning independence is a key life skill that will set them up for success in whatever activities they pursue.

Students learn content that is directly relevant for their future.

When students have choices in what they learn, they can tailor their education to suit the career path they envision for themselves. This means they can get a head start on learning the content they’ll need to master in preparing for a specific job. It also gives students a chance to discover early on that maybe they don’t like their chosen career path after all, before they invest money in a degree program in college.

The earlier students begin to think about possible career paths, the better—and student agency allows for this exploration to occur.

How to give students agency

Educators can give students more agency over their education by letting them choose how, what, and/or when to learn.

How to learn: Give students a voice in their courses by letting them choose how to learn about a topic and/or demonstrate their knowledge.

A report from The Education Trust describes three ways to build choice into student assignments: Teachers can let students choose the content they’ll focus on, the process they’ll use to learn about it, and/or the product they’ll create to demonstrate their learning.

To give students a choice in content, teachers can present broad topics to everyone but allow students to focus on a particular aspect of the topic. In an English class, for instance, teachers might give students a list of books relating to a certain theme and let students choose which book to read. For a history class studying World War II, one student or group might learn about the Normandy invasion, while another might take on the rise of fascism and a third might explore the Pacific front. Students could present their findings to the entire class so that everyone has a broad understanding of the topic, but they have agency in choosing which aspect to research.

Choice in process acknowledges that students learn in different ways. “Honoring these preferences,” the report says, “means offering assignments in which students are given the freedom to design their course of action, sequence their steps as they go along, work alone or with peers, or manage timelines and deliverables”—with teachers providing support as needed.

Choice in product lets students decide how to show what they’ve learned. They might write an essay, compile a slideshow presentation, or create a video, for instance. If teachers want students to use the same method of expression—say, creating a song—they might let students choose the genre: a pop song, a rap, or a commercial jingle.

What to learn: Give students a variety of choices in the topics they can study by expanding the range of courses available to them.

Offering a wide range of courses might be hard for many schools to do alone. They might not have the budget to hire additional teachers, or they might not be able to find and recruit teachers with the necessary expertise.

 A partner like VHS Learning can help. Almost 20,000 students in more than 600 high schools around the world use our nonprofit’s courses to supplement their school’s face-to-face offerings.

For example, our courses Veterinary Medicine and Animal Behavior and Zoology have proven to be quite popular among students who are considering a career in veterinary science. Our Forensic Science course engages students in STEM learning, and our American Sign Language courses help students become better communicators.

When to learn: Another advantage of VHS Learning courses is that they give students agency to learn at a time of their choosing. As long as students meet the required deadlines, it doesn’t matter when they complete their work. If students don’t function well in the morning and like to sleep in, they can learn later in the day if they desire. This flexibility appeals to many learners, especially those whose needs aren’t served as well by a traditional fixed school schedule.

A powerful approach

In my role in supporting student success, I have seen firsthand how powerful student agency is in motivating students. When students are given choices in how, what, and/or when to learn, their engagement soars. They invest more effort in their education, and they achieve better learning outcomes as a result. Student agency might not be a “magic” solution, but it’s a simple strategy that can have a profound effect on learning and achievement.

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

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