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Student Agency

Posted in Ed Tech 101 on May 12, 2014 by

What is “student agency”?

Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace. Authentic assessment, experiential or project based learning, and mastery-based learning all provide opportunities to increase student agency. With more student agency can come higher levels of engagement and commitment to the learning process. Given these benefits, what are the current limitations to increasing student agency in schools today?

Students may be ready for varying degrees of agency at different times, making classroom management difficult for teachers. Some may be very comfortable choosing their own topic and thesis for a paper and may be energized at the prospect of doing so. Others may have difficulty with preliminary research and media literacy. Some may be far along enough in their studies that they can relate current to past learning and find patterns easily in information. Others may not even have the study skills to sustain concentration on a single task (e.g., collecting sources, or reading and re-reading their own work to check for errors).

Contrary to popular belief, it often takes more work to structure a class to deliver a fair amount of student agency and meaningful freedom. In order to ensure that students are exercising agency in a productive way, teachers must conduct ongoing, formative assessment, so that they can determine what level of autonomy and control is appropriate for students to experience at any given point. The work of structuring classes so that they are conducive to student epiphany and self-discovery can be very involved.

It is understandably difficult to increase student agency within the rigid structure of many schools today, where the day is often divided into short class periods and many teachers are asked to organize their classes according to specific design rubrics that must address very specific modules of content (for example: 20 minutes lecture, 10 minutes group activity, 10 minutes wrap-up, 5 minutes classroom organization). As such, teacher agency (and by extension, principal and administrator agency) may be an important component of student agency.

How is student agency encouraged in different educational products? Implementation architect Shawn Lauzon explores the subject:

The following concepts are closely related to student agency:

Mastery-based learning
Formative assessment
Collaborative learning
Scaffolded instruction
Zone of proximal development